Since the war, he does not go to the baths. He cannot bear to be near other men, naked toads squatting in drifting steam. He does not like to see the scar that snakes thick and ropy across his thigh.
His wife prepares vichyssoise, beef in red wine sauce and wrapped in pastry, pot de crème. He eats the elegant food with the elegant guests. He smiles and longs for miso, rice, a thin cold slice of ono. He is a doctor.
His daughters say goodnight. Their small heads with gleaming black caps of hair, their necks slender as stems. The guests smile their approval. His wife beams, signals. The girls retire.
They have port and coffee. No tea. No one mentions the war. The doctor smiles, his finger tracing the scar through his trousers. The trousers are Italian, blue serge.
The doctor’s offices are in a modern building. The lobby floor is marble. The entrance has a double glass door. There is a receptionist, young and pretty. There is green tea for the patients. Soft music wafts around the waiting room.
The small complaints of the body fill his days. His patients are smart young matrons dressed in the captured silk of the war telling him of headaches, stomach upset. Young mothers with fat-cheeked children. Salary men with suspicious moles.
Sometimes there are veterans – lungs stung with cordite, weeping stumps. To them the doctor bows, apologizes, gestures at his waiting room filled with patients, music, tea. My practice is full. His scar glows red and twisting beneath his white coat.
His office is filled with tokens from patients – a small jade Buddha, a porcelain urn with brass dragon handles, a delicate bamboo incense burner. During Golden Week he receives melons wrapped in gold foil, strawberries nestled in fluted white cups. There are oranges in orange cellophane knotted with green silk ribbon, candies, liquors, nuts.
His wife is beautiful. She does not ask about his scar. While the doctor was away at war she cut her hair and applied a black henna rinse. The doctor does not like the henna, how it absorbs rather than reflects the light. Her hair is like a sky without stars.
During the war he received one letter each week, always with pictures of the daughters. Four years, every change recorded in a smiling square of shiny paper. Still he is surprised at their growth, alarmed at the sight of their stalky legs and round soft arms.
His daughters do not remember him. They are shy at his gift of Chinese dolls in the finest of silk dresses. Their bright eyes follow him. They do not ask him about the war. They have not seen the scar that lassos his leg.
The doctor’s wife sleeps in a western bed. The doctor does not like the bed, its sinking softness, its suffocating warmth. He prefers a rush mat next to the bed. He does not object when his wife reaches down to smooth the hair from his forehead. Occasionally he joins her on the bed before retiring to his mat.
In the war, sleep was an unwilling woman to be pursued, stolen, taken wherever she could be found. The other soldiers became adept at this. They enjoyed the pursuit, the tears and cries, the release that eased them into a bloody, sticky rest. The doctor did not enjoy the chase or taking but did what he must.
Now sleep does not run and hide, it does not struggle and cry. Sleep waits for him, a warm and willing wife who does not bleed. But the doctor does not sleep; he is afraid of sleep. He is afraid of the shape of his dreams, barely glimpsed in the moment before falling, the moment he jerks himself back from the edge.
The doctor sees patients every day except Sunday. The patients say many things about the war, his bravery, the difficulty. The doctor tells them, There is no sacrifice too great for the mother land. He tells them, There are many men braver than me. He tells them, We each do what we must to survive. His patients look at him with shining eyes.
The first time he hears the hum he thinks it comes from a patient. The patient is a small boy. The boy is with his mother. The mother tells her son, be still for the doctor, he is a brave man, a soldier like your father.
The doctor peers into the boy’s ear. There are many men braver than me, he tells them.
He looks into the boy’s mouth, the fresh fat pink of his tongue. The mother says, My son is named for my husband, the bravest of them all.
The doctor listens to the boy’s lungs. Breathe, he tells the boy. Out. In. The mother says, Perhaps you remember my husband, he spoke of you in his letters.
The boy’s brown eyes are dark, large as the pad of the doctor’s thumb. The doctor looks into them.
The boy’s mother says, his name is, K_____. The doctor listens to the boy’s heart. His own heart is a fist knocking at the door of memory. This is the very moment, the doctor later thinks, when he first hears the hum.
It is not a hum but a low continuous sound, a single long drawn out note: ahhhhhhhhhh.
The doctor listens through the living wall of the boy’s chest, to the heart that beats against its cage of bone.
The boy watches him with the eyes of K_______________, long forgotten.
The doctor removes the silver cup from the boy’s chest. He realizes, the hum is not inside the boy’s chest. Or, if it is, it is also outside the boy’s chest.
The doctor looks at the mother, her delicate eyebrows form worried peaks on her smooth white forehead. She does not cock her head to better hear the soft hum
A healthy boy, the doctor says. A boy a father would be proud of. The mother’s smile is sun on snow. You are so kind, she tells the doctor.
The doctor sees three more patients, the humming always behind their rising and falling voices. Alone, he searches the office for a source. He removes the music, he closes the glass doors. The humming remains. When he walks home, the humming follows.
At dinner his wife talks of holidays and travel. Her words are small boats bobbing on the surface of the humming. The eyes of his daughters follow him.
The humming grows louder. His patients begin to notice the way he cocks his head to one side, eyes adrift. In the waiting room they whisper of the war, his sacrifice. Poor man, they say. So brave. Out of respect, they do not speak to him of the war.
The doctor visits a colleague. A small problem with the ear, he tells him. A humming sound. A ringing, suggests the colleague. From the war, the guns. Many veterans have it.
The doctor tells him, It is more like a hum. Aaaaaaahhhhhhhh. The colleague shrugs, gives him drops. Two times a day, he tells the doctor. No more ring, no more hum.
The doctor uses the drops. At night he does not leave his mat. His wife does not smooth his hair.
The humming grows louder; it is a string inside of his head that stretches from one ear to the other, vibrating. When his patients speak, their words must travel the length of this string. Most words cannot make the journey. Although he listens carefully, the doctor hears little.
The waiting room is no longer full. The pretty receptionist bows and smiles and walks through the glass doors, away from the doctor with his tilted head. There is no music, no tea. Only the humming.
The doctor again visits the colleague. The colleague is busy, his practice has grown. His waiting room is filled with children, young matrons. He apologizes to the doctor. As you can see my practice is full.
With no patients, the doctor spends his days walking. Though he walks very fast the humming walks with him. He walks many miles. The wide streets become narrow, the cars squeezed into bicycles. There are no well-dressed matrons with plump-cheeked children. Smooth faces are replaced with seamed, straight backs replaced with bent. The humming so loud the doctor’s head now rests always on his shoulder.
At home the doctor’s wife is dressed for travel, bags packed. Her mouth is moving, moving but the humming is all he can hear. His daughters, too, are dressed for travel. When the door closes, the doctor is alone with the humming. There is no furniture – only his mat with the dolls upon it, delicate porcelain faces cracked, the round soft arms twisted, small bodies stripped of their fine silk dresses.
Walking, his feet find an herbalist. The doctor tells him, I have no money, only these. Once they were dressed in the finest of silk.
The herbalist’s hands are gentle with the dolls. He is small and old and bent with life. He covers the broken limbs, smooths the fine black hair. Like my own daughters, he tells the doctor. His eyes ancient with sadness.
The herbalist pricks the twisted rope of scar with long silver pins. He brews tea with special leaves and heats stones of special smoothness and weight. He holds the broken dolls and talks of the war: of his far away country, his scattered family, his small daughters broken by soldiers, lost.
The doctor watches him through drifting steam, pierced by the quills of memory. K__________, the raucous company of soldiers and their relentless pursuit of sleep, searching every enemy house for the unwilling woman.
A barricaded door always means, woman within. The soldiers hammer eagerly with their rifle butts to burst the locks.
The tromping of boots loud in rooms that are empty, but not quite silent.
The humming so small and fearful, aaaaahhh.
The laughing search drawn to a heap of blankets, aaaahhhhh.
A shout of triumph when gleaming black heads are revealed, sisters. The humming rising to a wail, aaaahhhhhh as K_____ and the many brave soldiers searched for their sleep in the smallest of places. The girls hands like fluttering birds.
The humming softer now aaaaaahhhhh as the doctor reaches for the small limbs, surprised by the hot slice of the knife, the fierce cry of older sister protecting younger long after the time for protection is done.
The brave soldiers laughing as the doctor tends his wound. A war injury, they cry. The small dark heads crushed, silent as dolls.
Like my own daughters! the doctor tells the herbalist, shouting in his strangled voice, shouting to be heard over the humming that has not stopped, has never stopped.
The doctor opens a new office. The marble floors are replaced with dirt swept smooth, the glass doors with air. The weight of the humming has creased his face, bent his neck and bowed his back.
His patients, too, are bent and bowed. The doctor cannot hear their voices over the humming that swirls always inside of him but he looks carefully into the shining eyes of his old patients, he listens patiently with his hands: he touches the weeping stumps, the roped scars, the scabbed wounds and blackened skins.
His waiting room is full, an endless tide that comes to see the bowed doctor who hears with tilted head what is not said, who never speaks, who treats the visible and invisible wounds of war, who takes no money but only gifts: a bit of bread, a piece of cloth, even, it is said, the broken dolls of children lost in the war, which he treats reverently as daughters dressed in the finest Chinese silk.
What a poignant, beautifully written story. I enjoyed the sparseness of your writing which showed that often the space around the words can be as important as the words themselves. Enjoyed it so much. Thank you
Thank you. I used to visit Japan a lot and was fascinated by the gardens, how the quietness had a rhythm as insistent as any loud noise. I wanted to write a story with that sort of quiet, underlying rhythm. I’m glad you liked it!