Miss Yamada knew if a girl was tall and thin, or short and plump, by the sound of her voice, and she also knew if a girl was hiding a piece of candy in her mouth. This is what oka-san said. I worried Miss Yamada was some kind of oni, a devil, with eyeballs peering out from inside her ears and nostrils, blinking on her fingertips. She lived with her mother and never left the house. My sisters and I were all frightened of Miss Yamada's mother -- balding and stopped, she did all of her shopping and errands in dark, old-fashioned kimonos, and geta shoes that made a hollow clop-clop sound as she walked. But Miss Yamada turned out to be delicate and quiet, with milky-white skin and cool fingers like weeping willow leaves. As she leaned over the koto, the back of her neck, in between wisps of black hair and the curving lip of her pale blue kimono, gave off a sweet, powdery scent from the rice talcum she used. She was like the women in wood-block prints -- except for her eyes, which were cloudy like old tea that has been left in the pot for too long. Her voice held no sharp edges, but it had the same effect on me as listening to a shakuhachi flute -- a kind of music that makes you feel sad inside. I fell in love with her. Sometimes I imagined Miss Yamada unpinning her hair at night, heavy black folds unfurling down to her waist. I longed to stand behind her and brush her hair, one-hundred strokes, the way my mother sometimes let me do. I wished that I were a boy, so I could grow up and marry Miss Yamada.
I used to wait in her garden until it was time for my koto lesson. One day I kept waiting for a long time, and I began to have a hot, ugly feeling inside -- like a dragon blowing smoke inside my stomach. Miss Yamada was inside her house with Natsu Natsumoru. Was she feeding Natsu the rice candies she sometimes gave to me at the end of a lesson? Had she forgotten all about me? The garden was filled with chrysanthemums-- explosions of color and petals that reminded me of the fireworks over Sumida River during Star Festival. And while I sat there with this bad feeling inside, they kept watching me, nodding at me on their stems, laughing at me until I couldn't stand it anymore and began to pick them -- carelessly tearing them off, the ragged stems oozing single, clear drops.
I kept a red one to wear in my hair, and the rest I dismembered over by the pond, pulling off the petals one by one, chanting She Loves Me, She Loves Me Not. It was filled with giant, fan-tailed goldfish -- mottled orange, red and white, colored like the marbles my brothers sometimes played with. Some of them had puffy, exploded heads. I was afraid of these kind of goldfish because my mother had told me that this was what happened to girls with tonkachi heads who didn't listen to their mothers. Soon the pond was filled with chrysanthemum petals, swirling in gentle whirlwinds around the shining bodies and dancing fan-tails of the agitated goldfish. Miss Yamada is blind, I kept saying to myself. She will not know that I have picked her chrysanthemums. But then I heard the shoji screen to the garden slide open, heard her call for me. I walked into the house with my heart loud as taiko drums. I see that you are wearing a chrysanthemum corsage today. This is what she said to me.
But this was years ago -- before the war, before my koto was wrapped in silk and put in storage, before my father moved us up to the mountain house to protect use from the bombs. The day after the B-29 bombers flew over Ota City my brothers and sisters and I rode down from the mountain on our bicycles to see if our house was still standing. It was, but on our way there, we saw many other that were not -- people searching rubble for belongings, relatives. This is when I rode my bicycle as fast as I could to Miss Yamada -- pedaling, pedaling, out of breath. Her house was gone. The garden gone. And in front of where the house used to be, Miss Yamada's mother was screaming. The neighbors were trying to take something away from her. And even though it was burnt, blackened, the long fingers crushed, I saw whose hand it was before my eldest brother found me and dragged me away.
Today the American man with the gentle eyes, the big nose that he is always putting inside a book, has left chrysanthemums on my typewriter at the American occupation camp where I work. He is not like the others -- he tosses rubber bands into my hair instead of trying to put his hand around my waist, and he shows me to spell the long American words that I have to type all day without understanding what they mean. I hold the chrysanthemums up to my face and breathe in their tangy, pungent scent. Suddenly, I can see everything. Petals raining down to the bottom of Miss Yamada's goldfish pond. He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not. The smell so strong it makes my eyes sting. These chrysanthemums stolen, crossing an ocean to return them.
Copyright 1995 by Lee Ann Roripaugh. First appeared in American Identities: Contemporary Multicultural Voices, ed. by Robert Pack and Jay Parini (Middlebury College Press: Hanover and London, 1994), reprinted in Beyond Heart Mountain, Viking Penguin, 1999.