Bartleby Snopes
A Literary Magazine

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Duck


               by Michael Janairo

 

In English For Life's main lesson room, the students stood to one side and the instructors the other as Director Tanaka entered. He was an unusually tall, barrel-chested Japanese man whose easy smile and wavy salt-and-pepper hair quieted the room. He strode past the beer, wine, whisky, sushi and sandwiches arranged on tables that had been pushed together in a tight line. With one hand he gestured toward the students; with the other, the instructors. "Ladies and gentlemen," he said with a smile, "welcome to English For Life's Monthly Happy Hour. Your lessons are over … for today. So please put away your books and speak English informally. Enjoy!" He brought his hands together and lowered his back in a slight bow.

Peter didn't move with the crowd. The newest instructor scanned the student's faces -- young professional men and women, housewives and retirees -- looking for Reiko, whom he had taught earlier that week. Someone wearing cologne got close to him and whispered: "Let 'Fuck Your Student Night' begin." The voice was quiet, the accent heavy and Australian, and it made Peter blush.

He turned to see a veteran instructor walking away. He was called "Stu," because his real name, Raleigh, was too hard for students to pronounce. Stu charged toward the alcohol saying, "Make a hole! Make a hole!" Students stared at him as he grabbed a giant bottle of beer, filled tiny plastic cups and handed them to anyone around him. Beyond Stu, on the far side of the room, stood Reiko. She was lean and tall, or at least taller than the women around her as she leaned close to them like a quarterback in a team huddle. He imagined they, too, were impressed by her, a college grad (major: French), who spoke fluent French but now needed English for her job (financial analyst for a French bank). Peter felt the redness of his face fade as he walked toward her, but Director Tanaka blocked his way.

"Mister Peter!" Tanaka said, smiling. He gestured to a quiet group of men and women. They gazed upon Peter with thin-lipped smiles, full cups of beer in hand. "Ladies and gentlemen, please meet Mister Peter. He is the newest addition to the English for Life team." Tanaka continued to speak about Peter, repeating a story he wanted Peter to use as his official history: He was from Boston (in truth, he had grown up outside Washington, D.C., but Tanaka had said, "No one knows Alexandria"); had graduated from Harvard (it was really Boston College; "Our students? They know Harvard!"); and had spent a few years in Tokyo teaching at various language schools, but switched to English For Life because it was more prestigious ("A sensei has experience; he's not a recent grad"). Then Tanaka bowed to the students, and left Peter to live these lies. The students accepted it all and then took turns asking questions like "What's your favorite movie?" "What's your favorite book?" "Why did you come to Japan?" He answered  -- "Star Wars," "Moby Dick," "For the adventure" -- and asked them the same questions, and he listened politely and complimented their English, even when he wasn't sure what they were saying, because their voices were quiet and halting and bereft of articles and prepositions. And of course they all smiled and laughed when he asked them why they had come to Japan, because that was just silly, and for a short while it seemed as if they had shared something real.

Stu landed a meaty hand on Peter's shoulder, turned to the students and said, "Good evening, language learners! Are we happy with happy hour? Kampai!" He raised his empty plastic cup and tapped it against one student's cup after another, saying, "Clink, clink, clink." He said, "Now, I'm so sorry, but I must borrow Peter-sensei." He pulled Peter away from the students as they asked one another, "Borrow?"

Stu whispered again: "Clock's ticking, mate. Stop the bloody act; invite young Reiko and her friends to Ozaki's." He pointed with his sharp chin across the room where Reiko was smiling at them. He gave Peter a push: "Go on, man."

Peter wished he hadn't told Stu he thought Reiko was attractive. He had said so because it was true, but that truth when mixed with his understanding of teacher-student relationships and English for Life's policies, and his strict Catholic upbringing, made acting on it seem wrong. But maybe something else was at work here with the free food and drinks that allowed for -- or even encouraged -- transgressions.

Peter lowered his head. He had already crossed an ocean; now all he had to do was cross a room. He walked up to Reiko and said, "Good evening," to her and her friends. He introduced himself and shook their hands.

Reiko, with a slight French accent, said, "I was seeing you talk with so many of the others, I was having the thought maybe you were avoiding me, yes?"

The eyes of the others slid from her to him.

He didn't know what to say. His heart skipped a beat when he realized she was flirting with him, and he didn't know how to act with these witnesses.

She said, "Of course, teachers must have so many duties?"

She was giving him an out, which emboldened him. "Actually," he said, "I was saving the best for last. I want to invite you to the after party at Ozaki's?"

Reiko turned to her friends. They spoke in rapid Japanese and nodded to one another with swift birdlike movements. Reiko looked up to Peter and said, "Sounds fun."

About half of the teachers and students from English for Life packed Ozaki's, where stereo speakers blared rock music and various TV screens showed baseball, soccer and sumo. Stu bought the first round for Reiko and her friends; Peter, the second. They drank and laughed and smiled, though Peter couldn't really hear a thing. When he saw seats open up in a quite corner, he signaled for the group to follow. Only Reiko came along, and he felt his heart beat faster as they sat close together, and the world around them seemed to change, to shrink and grow quieter, as if they were truly alone.

Reiko said, "Look."

He followed her eyes to a TV screen and he realized that the music and conversation had stopped and that all the TVs were now showing the same thing: news footage of a wild duck flying low over a pond with a steel-tipped arrow through its body. The screen froze on a grainy close-up of the duck with wings outstretched, the shaft a blur through its body. The next image showed a crowd near a fence around the pond, necks craning to glimpse the stricken bird. Then a pretty news presenter's face filled the screen, a grainy close-up of the duck floating in the air beside her head. Near the bar, a burst of laughter arose and was quickly shushed. The presenter spoke some more, and then the TV went to a commercial. Music from the stereo returned. The TVs showed different programs again. Voices grew louder. Peter found himself sitting very close to his student in an intimate corner of a bar late at night in Tokyo, and he looked confused.

She smiled at him and said, "Did you understand? The police want to capture the person who shot the duck, and they want to give the duck medical treatment, but they are afraid to capture it may hurt it more. It is so, so terrible. Everyone's been talking about it all day."

"Terrible," he said, feeling like a foreigner because he wasn't "everyone"; no one at the school had mentioned it. He asked, "Where is that pond?"

She gasped and lifted her hand to her mouth. When she lowered her hand, she revealed a knowing smile. She said, "Maybe you didn't hear? Shinobazu Pond. It is near Ueno Park."

He nodded and drank and tried to stop himself from blushing. He had never heard of the park or the pond, and wasn't sure he could repeat either name, they had sounded so strange. But he was sure somebody who had lived in Tokyo a few years would've known both. She had caught him in a lie, and he wanted the night to end.

She said, "Ce voyageur ailé, comme il est gauche et veule!" She said, "You know?"

He shook his head.

She said, "I am remembering Baudelaire's poem 'The Albatross.' The line has the literal meaning 'Here is the winged traveler, who is left so weak.'"

"The poor duck," he said.

"Yes," she nodded. "You, too, are a traveler, yes? I am, too."

He nodded, unsure what to say or where she was going.

She smiled again. "Too serious? Maybe, sometimes, I'm too serious. Do you know, Peter, what a duck says in Japanese?"

She smiled and said, "The duck says, 'Gaa, gaa.'"

"Gaa, gaa?" he said.

She said, "Very good! I'm teaching you duck Japanese. What is it that a duck says in English?"

"Quack," he said.

"Kwa … what?"

He said, "Quack."

"So strange," she said, as she watched his lips and repeated after him, "Quack." Then she said, "Even our animals speak different languages."

He nodded and they laughed.

She said, "You know, nature is very important to the Japanese people." She leaned close. He could smell the welcome sweetness of her perfume. She put a hand on his knee. Blood pounded through his chest. She spoke, but he didn't catch her words. He felt too dizzy. He watched her lips and nodded. She leaned in even closer. He felt her soft breath on his ear. She said, "I want to be natural with you."

     

He awoke to the aroma of coffee and burrowed himself deeper into her futon -- and her scent, which did nothing to slow his dawning sense of guilt.

"Good morning, Peter," she said, her voice close.

He peered over the covers to see her sitting on the edge of the bed, mug cupped in her hands, wearing a baggy white T-shirt. Was it his? Their clothes were puddles on the tatami-mat floor at her feet. On her bookshelf sat Japanese and French volumes, and her English For Life texts. Something pounded in his head, more than just the pain of a hangover, but an alarm telling him to leave.

She smiled, her eyes clear and bright. "I have an idea. Let us drink coffee, and then let us go see duck."

His mouth felt gummy and raw as he tried to speak. She got up and said, "Coffee, yes?"

"But," he said, his ragged voice was tinged with secondhand smoke.

She brought him a mug. He sat up, took it and sipped. He said, "Today is Sunday, and Sunday is a day of rest."

"You mean, like, you are so very tired?"

"I mean," he began, but he wasn't sure what he meant. Yes, he was tired, but it was more than that. He didn't want to be there. He didn't want to be seen with her. He still didn't believe he was there, and what they had done the night before, and she seemed to cool about it. He said, "I just like the way it sounds: 'Sunday is a day of rest.'"

"Why?"

He said, "It sounds biblical."

Her brow tightened. "Are you a Christian?"

"I was raised Catholic," he said, "but 'day of rest' is like an old-fashioned phrase, full of mystery and power."

"Ah," she said. "Maybe like Imperial Japanese."

He shrugged.

"I was worried: Is he Christian? Christian weak man's religion."

He said, "Maybe something biblical doesn't sound powerful to you."

She pressed her palms together and bowed and chanted: "That is correct."

And in a flash, he saw himself as an altar boy listening to old Monsignor Flanagan's low, mumbled chants during the weekday Mass before school. The scents of incense and candlewax filled the air as his younger self absorbed every incantation and prayer, his spirits rising to that moment of self-loss that he once thought of as communion with God.

"You very deep, I think," she said. "Not a party boy, but like monk in a story, you know? He is top student, but he learns so much he can no longer follow teacher's way. He must follow own way. So, instead of monk, he becomes a businessman and very rich. He has many women, many children. Much travel. And when he old man he go away. On his own. That life is good life, I think; finding own way."

"And you?" he asked, liking the story and that she had told it. "Are you a party girl?" As soon as that question was out there, though, he regretted it. Of course she'd say no, but what would he do if she said yes?

Instead, she turned her head from side to side, offering him her left and then her right profiles, as if to let him decide. Then she shrugged and said, "Let us go to see the duck."

 

At the Ueno Park train station, she took his hand and led him past men in suits talking and bowing into payphones and around islands of audiences circling jugglers, break dancers and jazz trios, while all the while, from far in the distance, an amplified voice shouted: "Foreigners go home! Go home!"

She walked quickly, her head aimed straight, her feet pointed out, her body rocking. They paused at the top of a long staircase, where they could look down and take in the wide expanse of the ancient pond, filled with duckweed, lily pads and lotus plants. Signs in English and Japanese said it had been built in the 1600s as a sanctuary for pilgrims visiting nearby shrines and temples. Now, it was a wildlife sanctuary.

They walked down the stairs and along a wide path that circled the pond. They stopped when they reached a crowd before a fence. Children with sticky fingers and popcorn bags, gray-hair seniors in light jackets and squinting middle-aged adults waited in silence, some with cameras at the ready. A cloud blocked the sun. The pond turned gray. Empty aluminum cans, popcorn bags and corn-dog sticks floated in the water. Reiko turned to Peter and smiled.

He suddenly felt as drab as the crowd, old and spent, decades older than her, even though he knew she had two years on him. A line of ducks swam out from behind a disarray of weeds. The crowd went silent. The ducks darted behind stalks and leaves. The crowd sighed, and he felt a surge of shame course through him with the words "This is what you're doing with your life?" echoing in his mind. He felt stupid; everything seemed stupid; all of them drawn here just because it was on TV.

Then the group of ducks returned, swimming into a clearing. Among them swam the arrow-stricken duck. From a distance, the arrow looked like nothing more than a comic prop held beneath a wing. The ducks turned toward the crowd. Some gasped. Cameras clicked. The shaft clearly thrust out the duck's back. The duck bent its head into the water to eat. The arrow skimmed the surface. The duck lifted its head. The arrow flicked water up in a perfect arc.

She squeezed his hand. The duck swam on, as if the arrow were routine. He was reminded of one of Monsignor's phrases: "Like Christ, we must all carry our own crosses." It was easy to remember; he said it in all his homilies.

The ducks disappeared behind a mass of vegetation. She whispered: "Amazing. This wounded animal has power. Look, all these people together. The animal makes us more human."

He squeezed her hand, looked into her eyes and said, "I was thinking the same thing."

She smiled. Her eyes filled with warmth. He knew why he was with her now.

He said, "Being with you has been amazing."

She smiled and his heart soared beyond the crowd and the pond, through time and space to see the two of them -- Reiko and Peter -- growing old together through a fulfilling, cosmopolitan life that included Japan, America and France, a future in which he was free of Catholic guilt and her insightful words were a source of endless amazement, and they kept having the best sex because each day offered opportunities of togetherness and of discovering new things about each other as they held -- deep within their hearts -- the unerasable image of the other at this moment when they first fell in love on the banks of Shinobazu Pond.

Her eyes locked on his. She opened her mouth to speak. He was certain she would say something to cement their connection, and thus prove their night together was eloquent, beautiful and true. She said, "Kwa-ku?"

 


BIO: Michael Janairo's journalism and creative writing has been published in various newspapers and literary magazines. His story "Out of Japan" won the Tsujinaka Fiction prize and was published in both English and Japanese in the Abiko Quarterly. Other recent and forthcoming work include the poem "Aswang" in the online speculative journal Eye to the Telescope, the short story "The Advanced Ward" in the anthology "Veterans of the Future Wars" and the short story "Angela and the Scar" in the anthology "Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction From the Margins of History." He lives in upstate New York with his wife, son and dog. (His family name is pronounced "ha NIGH row.") He blogs at michaeljanairo.com.