Ashley Thomson’s short story, A White Woman in Ōjin, was the winner of the 2014 Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award. Read his piece below. More of Ashley’s work can be found on his blog here. Stay tuned for the publication of other shortlisted and winning entries in the coming weeks. They can be found here.
A white woman got lost in the mountains in Ōjin Province, Japan in 1981. She had an umbrella, a book, a towel and a map. No food, no water. She spoke Japanese but that was of no use. It is a prerequisite of being lost that there is no one to speak to, other than those with whom you are lost, and mountains don’t speak. Or they didn’t to her, in Japanese or English. She was never found. She was, is, presumed dead. Although people—police—looked. It was unthinkable that a white woman be declared missing in Ōjin, so though the police had never tracked a white woman before—the memo said, ‘Upon sighting, alert a commanding officer’—they began with basics, the hostel at which she’d stayed.
The owners, a couple, told the police that she was tall and pale, with long, dark, almost Japanese black hair, and she had flat, blue eyes and a long nose. The man held a downward-pointing finger to his face: long. His wife took the hair. Black and long, she said, turning around and holding her hands to the small of her back: very long. Then she said the white woman was pretty, but she said it reservedly, and quashed it with embarrassed backpedalling—she could be wrong, she probably was wrong. Her husband mentioned breakfast. Yes, said his wife pointing at a tatami mat in an adjoining room, she ate it right there. The woman repeated the meal’s parts, regaining her composure: tamagoyaki, umeboshi, nori, miso soup and steamed rice topped with a spoonful of nattō. (That the owners had thought the white woman used chopsticks with impressive fluidity, yet still with an undefinable stiffness, they did not mention.) ‘And as far as you know,’ the police asked, ‘it was the last food she ate before she went missing?’ They nodded. ‘Where had she been going?’ She had asked directions to the hot springs, said the couple. She had seemed interested—where did they like to walk when they went walking?—but they had given her the same map they gave all visitors. The police looked at the map. The area around their village was volcanic, one valley in a nest of hundreds, every one severed from the next by a towering spine of rock coated in coarse, igneous shingle. The differentiation of these ridges and valleys was a skill reserved for locals. The map did not give this impression. Things were simple if you believed the map. The police were satisfied. If all else failed, the map was guilty.
Officers began their assault on the ridges and valleys in half-light, the day after the night she did not come back. They trickled up and out like water running backwards up a dry riverbed, navy blue rivulets carrying little white hats, forking and dividing, higher and higher. Their glossy black shoes with flat soles and no padding sunk into the walls of the ridges and came out dull and dusty. Shingle swallowed their shoes like sand on a dune and dug itself into the spaces between their feet and the leather. When they reached the tops of the ridges they swore and removed their hats and wiped their brows. Their fingers left smudges on the rims of their crisp white caps. They emptied their shoes in pairs, putting their hands on corresponding shoulders for balance, and stood and watched the valleys. The grey pumice looked almost white in the glare. Nothing moved, save other backwards streams carrying other hats up other ridges. Watching, they thought of it: over any of these ridges, the First White Woman declared Missing in Ōjin Province. The cheap stitched leather around their ankles ground at their skin through their thin black socks. The smell of their sweat-soaked bodies permeated their uniforms. The dank, stale scent of trapped heat.
My mother heard of the hot springs through a friend. She went alone because my mother was that kind of person: self-aware enough to know she was not companionable, proud enough to choose solitude before it was forced on her. On the train from Tokyo to Ōjin Province, before the cars began to empty, she stood taller than everyone. She always stood taller, and it made her subject to a peculiar form of harassment which lent appeal to leaving the city: every evening on the train home from work, little Japanese men in little black suits would pretend to fall asleep on her. When their heads slid with a counterfeit nonchalance down towards her breasts, she would jab their faces away. At first she did it like a spider was on her, a sudden recoil, but over the months it had become as reflexive and mundane as their reactions. Their eyes would spring open with dim, innocent surprise. They would murmur sumimasen. Minutes later they’d make another attempt. When she disembarked the Ōjin-bound train and boarded the bus to the village, there was only one little Japanese man who followed her. He took a seat far from hers, removed his jacket and shoes, curled up against a window and began to snore. She signalled the driver when she saw the distinctive roadside shrine and walked to the hostel along the streets of the quiet town.
My mother took no food or water when she left the hostel the next day. She’d be back from the springs in time to lunch in the town, and there was water on the way, a mountain spring with supposedly restorative properties. The sky was clear and the sun was beaming itself up to total indecency. She bent forward a little as she strode up through the town, inclined to taunt the undertaking of the road, bowed to invite the sun’s lashing. Squat old Japanese grandmothers who lived with their sons, their sons’ wives and their grandchildren watched her pass, poised with brooms in hand, their white hair suspended in artless buns behind their heads. All poise and squint. My mother bowed respectful greetings as she passed—ohayō gozaimasu—and they blinked, pursed their lips, swept, and peered after her as she strode on. They would later tell the police yes, they’d seen a white woman. She was too tall. Her elbows were out. She wore clothes that were too big for her that showed her skin too much. Too big and showed too much skin? the police juxtaposed. The old women’s faces soured. The police closed their note pads, bowed and left.
At the top of the village, where the houses ended, the path zigzagged up the valley’s right side. The valley walls were slipping sheets of grit but the path, trod wide by the townsfolk, banked widely back and forth. My mother savoured it crunching and shifting under foot, reflecting her deliberate energy back into the soles of her feet. She had been walking up between the ridge contours an hour and was getting thirsty when she heard children’s voices ahead, nearing. They had rural accents which she couldn’t understand. They rounded the bend ahead of her. There were seven of them, the smallest just a baby on the arm of the eldest, a girl. Two of them were naked save the sandals on their feet. They were still wet from the swim. The dust they were kicking up had dried into tattoos on their legs, stuck to the paths the water had dribbled earthwards. They froze when they saw her. My mother thought of them suddenly as rabbits under the shadow of an eagle. She smiled. Gaijin, said one, the word cut to a whisper in its second syllable as he realised he’d been speaking aloud. Watashi wa Mary, said my mother, her English name like a burp in the wake of her accented Japanese. The children stared at her. They were seeing a strangeness, something they’d only heard about, and at that moment, by some unfortunate coincidence, their collective imaginations succumbed to darkness: its flat eyes were not pretty, they were empty; its black hair had been meant to stay buried; its smile was bared teeth; and its skin, they knew, would be as cold as the ice that froze black and hard on the streets of the town when the snow came. The baby smelled the fear and started crying. One of the boys, his pugnacious belly sticking out above a piece of string that held up a pair of faded pink shorts, looked from the baby to my mother. He knelt, picked up a stone and hurled it. It landed with a pumph on the ground between them.
Gaijin, said the boy.
My mother frowned. She took a step forward and repeated, Watashi wa Mary.
The boy grabbed another stone and flung it. It whizzed past her head. She ducked and stood up, angry. Hey!
A hail of stones, gravel and sand was hurtling at her. My mother’s mind came alive—the steps they would take in their righteous fantasy. She ducked, pivoted and ran.
The cries of the children followed her, ducking and falling down the avalanching wall of the valley. Stones rained down. She panted, scrambled and ran farther, the dry dust clogging her throat. She reached a bank near the base of the valley and ran into a cluster of bushes. She huddled, panting, heard the children skid to a halt, rocks in their hands. She hunched, protecting her head. The kids dropped the stones. There was no telling what a cornered gaijin would do. They turned for home.
When they were gone, my mother started crying. She sat in the bushes for half an hour before she wiped her nose on her t-shirt and her eyes on the backs of her dusty, bloody hands. The palms of her hands had been skinned, and she had grazes on her legs and forearms that wept but didn’t bleed. Her hair was ragged with sweat and her eyes were red with dust and tears. She sniffed, considered her options—umbrella, book, towel, map—stood up and started climbing. My mother trusted things like maps, and at first she trusted this one. By the time she reached the ridge, she had decided through her fury that this was a story, one she would tell to people who would laugh. Gaijin, she thought, looking around for the path. She let her stubbornness push her and her sense of direction guide her into the next valley and up the next incline. Over another ridge she found nothing. She became less angry. Doubt grew within her and eased it aside. A tiring doubt. My mother remembered with a quiet fury that the Japanese made tourist information cute and simplistic. If my mother had ever met the police, she would have agreed with them: the map was guilty. She climbed higher, but the only view she got reminded her of standing between two mirrors, repeating images receding into the distance in both directions. She got hungry, and thirstier. She climbed down. She walked down the valleys, looking up at the slopes on either side as they panned out of sight, hoping for the hint of a bank that might mean a path. The wind had become stronger. She took her towel out, but even with it around her she was cold.
My mother kept going till nightfall, silently quoting the map. Just another ridge and the cartoon sun with the radiant, smiling face, beaming the path of arrows, would bring you to the hot springs filled with tiny, pink cartoon people. From there you can take the path back. That’s what it said, that’s what would happen. Clouds moved in and the valley became impenetrably dark. My mother had been told this would happen. Only the days were dry in Ōjin this time of year. When it started to rain, my mother took the umbrella out. She went to the edge of the riverbed where the wall of the valley sloped upwards. Expanding the umbrella, she dug its rim into the gravel and shovelled grit out from underneath it with her hands. When the hollow was as large as it could be without dissolving out of shape, she curled up under the small awning and pulled the towel over herself. She blew on her raw fingers and didn’t sleep.
I never knew my mother to cry. I told her once that I had a memory of her crying. I was very young and she was in the kitchen, sitting on the floor with her legs crossed, holding a calendar to her chest and sobbing. I put my arms on her—I was too small to put my arms around her—and I cried too, because when I was a child and I saw other people cry, it made me cry. She pulled me into her lap. She held me and the calendar and we cried together. It still makes my heart hurt to remember. She didn’t remember that. It may have been a dream. Even in my memory it has that ruddy tint of a photograph taken in semi-gloom on a disposable camera. It’s a strange thing to look at photos of your parents as young people. My mother had a beautiful, placid face. It was sometimes too long and sometimes too thin but everyone’s face is sometimes too something. More often than not she was pretty. Her long slender nose had a bump at the bridge and a bump at the tip, both of which were obscene and captivating. I have them too. They looked better on her than they ever will on me.
The search went on for weeks. People kept looking after that time, but they were just people. The police gave up and denounced the irresponsibility of Ōjin’s hostel. The owners could not take the shame; the hostel closed and they moved away. The day the search was called off, the policemen who had helped went back to their homes. As they walked in their front doors, unbuttoning their filthy shirts and passing them to their wives with a kiss, they touched their children’s heads. Their children frowned and went back to their toys on the floor. Nothing? said their wives, and the policemen shook their heads. A reckless woman, muttered the policemen’s mothers. The wives rolled their eyes at the husbands, the husbands smiled at the wives. That was the end of it.
When the sun rose, my mother pulled the umbrella out of the grit. Then she looked at the riverbed, turned downhill and started walking. She was cold and tired and her hair was frayed, knotted and covered in dust, but she was determined in her eyes. This seemed important to her, but it shouldn’t have. People who live against long odds swear their resolve helped; other people who have no less of it die. The sun rose as my mother walked down out of the mountains, following damp creeks to damp tributaries to damp rivers until finally she came to a road that ran across the riverbed. She climbed out and stood at the side of the road. A bus came and she flagged it. It slowed, opened its doors and she told the driver she had no money. The driver looked at her, into her eyes, at her white mud-caked legs, and told her to take a seat. The bus ride lasted for hours. It took my mother out of Ōjin Province, into the adjacent province and then into another and another. She sat in silence as passengers climbed on and off, and made no indication that she saw their glances. Finally the bus pulled into a depot in a city my mother didn’t know. The driver shut off the engine and turned around, and my mother burst into tears. My mother stayed at the bus driver’s home that night, in the humble, attentive care of the bus driver’s septuagenarian mother.
The following morning she thanked them too many times with the insistence becoming of shame. The bus driver’s mother fawned on her. My mother wished that her eyes hadn’t been kind. She promised to repay the money they had lent her and let them put her on a bus back to Tokyo.
Three years later, my mother met my father. Five years after that I was born. And back in Ōjin Province, a white woman is still missing. She was, is, presumed dead.
The 2015 ACT WC Award winners will be announced soon at our Annual Christmas Party and Awards Night on 17 December. More details here.
Ashley, I was a runner-up in the Marjorie Graber-McInnis Short Story Award in 2014 and
I’ve just had the pleasure of reading your winning entry. I was entranced. You are an amazing writer and deserve to go far. Congratulations!