Blue Murder

Treasures From the Vault:

This story was originally published in the Summer 2011 issue of the Asia Literary Review

Suzanne Kamata's latest piece, 'Seeing the Monet' is available to subscribers in Issue 27, Spring 2015.

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ON THE FIRST DAY of spring Keita Hosokawa fell in love with a bird. If anyone had told him a week before that that would happen, he wouldn’t have believed it. He was fed up with birds. Specifically crows.

     That year the crows seemed greater in number than ever. Fatter, too. They feasted at the roadside shrines where hump-backed women set out oranges and bowls of cooked rice for their dear departed. They swooped on cemeteries and ate the offerings from gravestones. They ate until they were as big as niwatori, until it seemed like the telephone wires would not support them.

     As if there weren’t enough food available elsewhere, they fed in Keita’s orchard. He could see them through the window as he ate his breakfast: a murder of crows settling in the branches of his nashi trees. The sight of them made him weary before the day’s work had even begun. He turned away from the window and tried to smile at his son.

     Ichiro sat in his high chair, banging his spoon on the tray. His bib was soaked with drool. “Wan wan wan!” he barked, like a dog.

     Keita sighed. He tried to make the boy say “otosan” or even “papa”, which was easier to pronounce than the Japanese word, but he wouldn’t learn. He could say “mama” and make a variety of animal sounds, but he seemed wilfully to ignore Keita.

     “Papa,” Keita said softly, trying again.

     Ichiro’s spoon flew out of his spit-slimed hand and onto the floor. “Miaow,” he said, spotting Neko-chan licking her paws in the corner.

     “Papa,” Keita repeated.

     From the kitchen, his wife Misa giggled. “Don’t feel so bad,” she said. “He doesn’t see you enough to know who you are. He’ll figure it out soon.”

     “He doesn’t see me because I’m out in the field trying to protect his legacy,” Keita said, suddenly feeling angry. He knew Ichiro wasn’t to blame. He was a baby. He slept almost all the time. When he was a little bigger Keita would take him to the orchard and prop him against a tree. “This is all yours,” he would say, as his father had once told him. “Someday you’ll take care of these trees.”

     Even if Keita and Misa had other children, Ichiro, as the firstborn son, was entitled to the family property. The land with all the trees and the house would be passed on, as had happened for generations.

     Keita’s parents were usually at the breakfast table with them, but they had left the previous day for Texas to visit Keita’s sister. She was a doctor and had gone to the United States to conduct research into kidney diseases. Keita’s parents worried about her because she was past 30 and unmarried. It didn’t matter to them that she had bought her own house and drove an imported car, or that she could afford annual vacations in Europe. They had hopes of a traditional life for her, one with a husband and children. Still, she was allowed to do as she pleased. Keita, as the oldest son, was bound to follow their desires.

     When Keita turned 29 his mother had declared it was time for him to take a bride. He felt the weight of duty and meekly agreed. His first choice of wife, a tittering young woman with waist-length hair and dimples, seemed to like him but refused the role of farm wife. The next 10 he met had almost identical reactions. They wanted careers in tall, air-conditioned buildings. They didn’t want to share a roof with his parents. He thought he might have to settle for a foreign bride, one of the Southeast Asians sent to Japan to marry the country’s undesirable bachelors; he wondered how he would communicate with such a woman. He had never studied Thai or Tagalog and his English wasn’t good.

     But then his luck changed. A family friend introduced him to Misa, who had grown up on a farm. She knew all about nashi: how to pollinate them, how to batten the branches when a typhoon was approaching, how to turn the fruit into a sweet liqueur. Her hair was short and she didn’t mind dirt under her fingernails.

     The mayor attended the wedding and made a speech praising their complementary qualities. Keita had always been a dreamy boy, he said, but Misa was of simple tastes and practical and she would keep him tethered to the earth. Their honeymoon was in Hawaii, where Keita marvelled at acres of pineapple and sugar cane. What must it be like to be in charge of all that, he wondered. His family’s farm was modest by comparison.

     For the first year of marriage Keita and Misa had worked side by side among the trees, but then she became pregnant and nausea and headaches had forced her to stay in the house.

     Today, Keita would be going into the orchard alone. Misa would play with Ichiro. Perhaps she would watch the afternoon dramas while he had a nap. With Keita’s mother in Texas she would be able to relax for a change. Keita, too: the bickering women frayed his nerves, almost made him want to stay among the trees.

     He scraped the last grain of rice from his bowl and pushed the breakfast dishes away. “I guess I’d better get out there before the crows eat all my fruit,” he announced.

     Misa murmured her agreement and gathered the dishes.

     “Moo!” said Ichiro.


* * *


Keita could hear the crows as he stamped into the field in his work boots. “Kah! Kah!” They seemed to be mocking him, telling jokes at his expense.

     Keita didn’t know how to frighten them away. He had positioned a straw man in a floppy hat, plaid shirt and worn-out jeans in the centre of the field but the birds didn’t seem to mind. They perched on the scarecrow’s shoulder. He tied aluminium pans to the branches of trees, having heard that metallic brilliance would ward off the intruders, but after a day or two of wariness the crows returned in full force.

     If he’d had a gun he would have blasted into the trees, but he had no such weapon. A sudden burst of fury sparked him with energy. He filled his lungs and screamed, “Iiiiiiyyaaaa!” running through the orchard waving his arms as though deranged. The crows lifted into the air, flecking the sky with black. They circled cautiously, then one brave bird descended towards the trees.

     Keita sighed. If it wasn’t crows it was typhoons. If it wasn’t weather it was blight. He wished he could take a season off from farming. A few months in, say, an office would refresh him.

     He had been to the doctor recently to find out why he was always exhausted. His body felt worn and defective even though he was only 30. His sight was failing, his girth expanding, his intestinal tract rebelling after every meal.

     “Too much stress,” the doctor told him. “You’ll have to stop smoking and drinking – and you’d better find another job.”

     Keita had laughed; if only it were that simple. He had signed up for a karate class – he had become a black belt while in college – hoping for physical release. But the weekly sparring matches left him breathless and sore and he found himself being beaten by 16-year-old beginners.

     Now, standing in the field, he thought about all the work that had to be done. He knew he could call on the neighbouring farmers to help, his parents being out of the country, but asking them seemed like too much trouble. All he wanted to do was lie down under the trees and sleep.

     Instead, he scrabbled for a stone and tossed it at a plump black bird. “Kah!” The crow ruffled its feathers and fixed its beady eyes on him, but didn’t fly away. Keita turned from the orchard, from his day’s work and walked down to the river that ran alongside his property.

     He found a broad, smooth rock and sat there to contemplate the water. The river gurgled and flowed and its melody, a balm for tattered nerves, soothed him. He listened and watched and succumbed to the caresses of the spring breeze on his face. It was in such a beatific state that he first saw the bird.

     She rose a few yards in front of him on blue-tinged wings. He admired the long beak, the russet breast as bright as a wedding kimono. Her grace, the curve of her neck, made his heartbeat quicken. He had seen spindly legged egrets and mallards in the river, but never such a bird as this. In the deepest part of himself he began to believe that this bird had been sent to him in this moment of difficulty to ease his pain. It was a wild idea, but he clung to it nevertheless.

     He remained as still as the rock he sat on, not wanting to alarm the mysterious visitor. He watched as she dived into the water to hunt. The ayu wriggled in her beak but she flew into a nearby tree and stunned the fish with a quick slap against the bark before gulping it.

     What kind of bird was she? And where had she come from? He would ask his friend Junji. Junji was a serious birdwatcher from way back; he had a list of all the birds he wanted to see during his life. Junji’s vacations were always part of his quest to tick off birds on the list and he had ventured as far as Brazil to catch sight of a parrot in the wild. On a trip to Washington state he’d been lucky enough to see a bald eagle. His mind was an encyclopaedia of bird lore.

     Keita stayed at the river all morning watching the bird. He went back to the house for lunch, but didn’t tell Misa what he’d seen.

     “How did your work go?” she asked him, dishing out curry over rice.

     “Fine,” he said. He could not meet her eyes. He imagined Misa crying out in jealousy. “What?” she might say. “You prefer her company to mine? What about your family? Ichiro? Me?” In reality, if he told her the truth she would probably chastise him for wasting the morning, not for being unfaithful.

     He returned to the riverside after lunch but the bird had disappeared. After an hour’s vigil he went back to his nashi trees. That night he called Junji.

     “Sounds like a kingfisher,” Junji said. “But that’s impossible. They don’t live round here.”

     “Maybe it got lost,” Keita said. “Or it might have escaped from a zoo.”

     “Or maybe you need new glasses.”

     Keita didn’t laugh. The next morning he would take his camera. He would show Junji he wasn’t dreaming.


* * *


She was there, swooping through the trees on cobalt blue wings. He wondered if she had a nest nearby. He imagined eggs, then a flock of kingfishers to fly through his mornings.

     He hid in the bushes and when the bird settled for a moment on a black pine branch he clicked the shutter. He took dozens of photographs, putting his camera down only to eat the lunch Misa had prepared for him. Though he felt a niggling responsibility to attend to his trees he stayed at the river, watching the bird’s every flutter. At dusk he returned to the house, reluctantly.

     “You’re late,” Misa said over her shoulder. She was in the living room, seated on the tatami with the baby.

     “I know. Sorry.” Keita saw his dinner laid out on the table and knew it was already cold. He sat down to eat.

     In the early days of their marriage Misa would have sat down beside him while he dined, even if she had already eaten. But now the baby took up almost all her time. Keita could hear her singing to him now: “Flying crows, why do you call? ’Cause on the mountainside we’ve seven, seven little babies with lovely round eyes.”

     She had the voice of a lark, but he hated that song. The crows that plagued his orchard were not pretty. They were creatures from a nightmare. He had heard of two schoolchildren being pecked by them. They dropped pebbles on railway tracks, messing up train schedules. So what if, according to legend, crows pulled the sun into the sky each day? The birds were a nuisance at best and there was nothing lovely about their eyes.

     He wanted to tell Misa to stop singing, but Ichiro began clapping his hands in delight.

     The two of them were perfectly content without him. He felt that he was nothing more than a field hand or a houseboy.


* * *


When Keita uploaded the pictures to his computer that night he was disappointed to find that none of the images had turned out as expected. In some, the bird in flight appeared as a blur across the centre of the photographs. Others were underexposed or awash with light. Still, he emailed them to Junji and they conferred by phone.

     “Could be a kingfisher. But they’re usually more skittish around humans.” 

     “I was well hidden.”

     Perhaps Keita had a special affinity with the bird. Maybe she trusted him more than she did other people. The thought warmed him.

     He considered telling Misa about the visitor and waving the printed pictures in front of Ichiro’s face, but they had so much else to interest them – their songs, their kisses, their secret games. He would keep the bird for himself.

     The next day his mother and father called from Texas. His mother went on about the wide-open ranches and the gigantic beef steaks.

     “I bought you a pair of cowboy boots,” she said. “I hope they’re the right size.”

     Keita muttered his thanks, then inquired about his sister, who, it turned out, had taken up yoga and become a vegetarian, much to his mother’s confusion. 

     “I’ll let you speak to your father now,” she said.

     Keita braced himself.

     “Have you outwitted the crows?” the elder Hosokawa asked.

     Keita sighed. He’d covered the trees with netting, but a few of the black demons had found an opening. Those that hadn’t had spent the morning tormenting the cat.

     “Crows are omnivorous,” Junji had told him. “They’ll eat anything.”

     Even Neko-chan, who slept at the foot of his futon? He’d read an article in a newspaper about crows attacking baby squirrels in another town. The birds nudged the squirrels off the telephone wires, then assailed and ate them after they had fallen to the ground. The reporter had called the birds “a new type of serial killer”.

     “Please don’t speak to me about crows,” Keita, still smarting from the conversation with his father, told his wife. He knew she didn’t really care what went on in the orchard. She was just making conversation. He wished they had more to talk about, like in the old days, before marriage, when they had been a mystery to one another.

     Keita knew there was work to be done, but on this morning he didn’t even pretend. He inserted a blank memory card into his video camera and marched straight to the riverbank. Why hadn’t he thought of this earlier? On video he would be able to capture the grace of the bird as well as her delicate shape and brilliant colours.

     Keita crouched in his usual spot behind a bush; the grass there had become matted from his daily vigils. He kept his camera at the ready for an hour, then two, but the bird – his bird – never appeared. The crows, he thought, his stomach tightening. The crows have murdered my lovely bird. If they were brave enough to dive at humans and hungry enough to eat squirrels, then wouldn’t they attack smaller birds as well? He tried to muster hope, but after searching the surrounding area all day he left the riverbank and returned to the house.

     As usual, dinner was on the table, but Keita ignored the grilled fish and soup. He poured himself a cup of chilled sake and took a big mouthful.

     “What is it?” Misa asked, the baby on her lap. She had a rattle in one hand and reminded Keita of a court jester. There was no way she would ever be able to understand his sorrow.

     In his dreams that night the kingfisher glided on the air, circling ever closer to Keita’s hiding place. He sat transfixed. The bird, no bigger than a swallow, landed on his palm. She studied him with curious brown eyes and let him stroke her blue back with one finger. And then she ruffled her feathers and flew into the sky.

     Keita woke with a kernel of hope nestled in his heart. Today she would be there, waiting in the trees. He was sure of it as he bolted out of the door without eating breakfast. More than food, more than air, he needed a glimpse of his exquisite bird.

     The sun rose higher in the sky as he stared at the river. The fish swam, undisturbed. Sparrows fluttered past, but there was no flash of blue. No long-beaked lover roosting on his palm.

     He heard rustling behind him. The grass twitched and parted and there emerged Neko-chan, a gift in her mouth. Keita stared, appalled, not wanting to believe he had shared his bed with this beast.

     The bird’s resplendent plumage was tattered and mauled. Its entrails leaked through a rip in its chest. One leg was bent, the claw dangling. Its eyes were opaque, unseeing. A lustrous blue feather stuck to Neko-chan’s fur like a macabre corsage. 

     Keita’s eyes filled with tears. He took off his glasses and the bird deposited at his feet became as blurred as in the crude photographs. The cat rubbed against his legs and he kicked her away. For months there had been no elation in Keita’s life; but when this wonder appeared he had found joy. Yet he couldn’t protect this wild spirit from danger and he couldn’t protect his orchard – the trees he had been entrusted with, that he was meant to maintain for Ichiro and all the generations to follow.

     His hands trembled as he bent to grasp the dead kingfisher. The body was still warm, but there was no heart beating against his hand. With one thumb he stroked the feathers. Then he laid the bird back down on the ground and began to dig with his hands. The dirt flew into the air. It fell on his head, but he didn’t care. When he had dug a deep enough hole he settled the carcass at the bottom and filled it in. He found some large stones near the river and arranged them on top of the grave. Then he crouched there, behind the bushes and tried to rock the sudden loneliness out of his body. His grief was so absorbing that he didn’t hear the bird calls at first.

     “Kah! Kah!”

     He looked over his shoulder and saw a black-crowned figure flapping its wings. It was even larger than the jungle crows that targeted his orchard. The being came closer and closer, but he wasn’t afraid. Beside it, a taller creature picked through the grass on elegant long legs, its pure white plumage dazzling in the sunlight.

     He imagined being lifted by those great white wings and carried away from the river, skimming the tops of the trees in his orchard, flying across the Pearl Bridge and beyond. He would leave all this behind and travel to another country. Maybe he would work in an office, or a clean, gleaming shop. Maybe when he was gone his wife and son would finally appreciate him. Perhaps they would think he had joined his ancestors and pray to his photograph, setting out his favourite food every morning on an altar. Meanwhile, in some other land, he would find respect and love. There would be no more crows, no more Neko-chan. He would begin again.

     “We brought you breakfast!” a voice called out.

     Keita stood up and shook away his fantasy. He brushed the dirt off his pants.

     “You didn’t eat,” the voice sang. “You must be famished.”

      His stomach rumbled as if in reply. He rubbed the tears from his eyes and put his glasses back on. He was hungry. Taking a deep breath, he flew to meet them, his wife and child.


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