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Plum Wine

by Angela Davis-Gardner

Hardcover, 316 pages, Univ of Wisconsin Pr, List Price: $26.95 |


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Excerpt: Plum Wine

Plum Wine

A Novel

The University of Wisconsin Press

Copyright © 2006 Angela Davis-Gardner
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-299-21160-6

Chapter One

The chest arrived on a grey afternoon in late January, three weeks after Michi-san's death. Barbara sat huddled at the electric table in her six-mat room, eating peanut butter washed down with green tea and reading student quizzes on original sin. It had just begun to snow, white petals floating haphazardly up and down, as if the direction of the sky were somehow in question. She kept glancing out the window, thinking of Rie's refusal to turn in a paper. Michi-san would have consoled her about Rie, and advised her what to do. If only Michi were here: a thought that had lately become a mantra.

As she took another spoonful of peanut butter, there was a knock at the door. She extracted her legs from beneath the warm table and jumped up. Junko, Hiroko, and Sumi, the students who shared a room downstairs, had talked about dropping by. Barbara's apartment was a mess-she hadn't cleaned in days-but it was too late now.

On the kitchen radio, Mick Jagger was lamenting at low volume his lack of satisfaction. She left the radio on; the girls were "becoming groovy," as Sumi put it, about Western culture.

Outside the door, instead of the three bright student faces, was a small, formal delegation. Miss Fujizawa, president of Kodaira College, gazed at her beneath hooded eyelids. Beside her was Mrs. Nakano, the English department head who had hired her last year in Chapel Hill. Behind the women were two of the college workmen, Sato and Murai. They all bowed and said good afternoon, the women in English, the men in Japanese.

Clearly they intended to come in. Barbara mentally scanned her rooms; she could ask them to wait just a minute while she scooped up the dirty clothes.

"We are sorry to disturb you," Miss Fujizawa said. "Professor Nakamoto has made you a bequeathal."

"A bequeathal?" Barbara glanced at Michi-san's apartment, cater-cornered from hers across the hall; for the first time since Michi's death, the apartment door stood open.

"A sort of tansu chest. Not a particularly fine one, I'm afraid." Miss Fujizawa nodded toward the small chest that stood between the two workmen. "This note was appended to it," she said, handing Barbara a slender envelope. Inside, on a sheet of rice paper, was one sentence, in English, "This should be given to Miss Barbara Jefferson, Apartment # 6 Sango-kan, with best wishes for your discovery of Japan. Sincerely, Michiko Nakamoto."

Barbara stared down at the precise, familiar handwriting. It was almost like hearing her speak.

"Apparently you were held in high favor," Miss Fujizawa said. "There were few individual recipients of her effects. May we enter?"

"Yes, of course. Please. Dozo." Barbara backed down the hall to the kitchen, where she turned off the radio. Miss Fujizawa, leaning on her cane, led the procession to the back of the apartment. Mrs. Nakano, ruddy-cheeked with a cap of shiny black hair, was next, followed by the two men who carried the tansu chest between them.

The chest was small, three-drawered, a third the size of Barbara's clothes tansu. She recognized the plum blossom designs on the tansu's hardware, the dark metal plates to which the drawer pulls were attached.

"It's the wine chest!" she called out, following them down the hall to the tatami sitting room. The workmen had placed the tansu between her kotatsu table and chest of drawers.

"Wine?" Miss Fujizawa and Mrs. Nakano said in unison. The women bent to pull open the top drawer. Miss Fujizawa began an intense consultation in Japanese with Mrs. Nakano. Barbara did not understand a word, but the tone of dismay was clear. Michi-san had told her that while Japanese men may drink a great deal, it was frowned upon for women of a certain class, and especially the women of Kodaira College. A little plum wine-umeshu-was acceptable, however, considered beneficial for ladies' digestion.

"It's just umeshu," Barbara said.

Over Mrs. Nakano's shoulder, she could see the row of bottles. Each one was wrapped in heavy rice paper that was tied with a cord and sealed with a large dot of red wax. On the front of each bottle was a date, written in ink with a brush and below it, a vertical line of calligraphy, perhaps the date in Japanese. One night when she and Michi had been drinking umeshu, Michi had showed her the vintage wines, but Barbara hadn't noticed the dates. She leaned closer, looking at the numbers. A bottle of last year's wine, 1965, was in the right corner of the drawer; next to it was 1964.

Miss Fujizawa closed the top drawer and opened the next, still talking nonstop to Mrs. Nakano. Barbara wanted to reach past the women and touch the wines. She couldn't wait for them to leave.

Miss Fujizawa turned to her. "We are sorry, Miss Jefferson. We were under the impression that the chest contained pottery, or some such. Professor Nakamoto would not have meant to trouble you with these bottles. I will have them removed for you at once."

"But she meant ..." She thrust Michi's note at Miss Fujizawa. "It says right here, this should be given ..."

"The bequeathal letter refers to the tansu, not its contents," Miss Fujizawa said, with a dismissive wave at the note. "Doubtless she realized you needed another article of furniture into which to place your things." She glanced about the room, at the stacks of books and papers on the tatami matting, and on the low table, in the midst of student papers, the jar of peanut butter with the spoon handle rising from it like an exclamation point. Sweaters and underwear were heaped on the tokonoma-the alcove where objects of beauty were supposed to be displayed-obscuring the bottom half of the fox-woman scroll that hung above it.

"Please," Barbara said. "I'd like to keep the wine, for sentimental reasons. It's only umeshu. Michi ... Nakamoto sensei ... made it herself, from the plum trees on the campus and at her childhood home."

"You are mistaken, I believe. Umeshu is made in large jars, not in bottles of foreign manufacture. These must contain stronger spirits."

"But I saw these bottles-I'm sure this is umeshu. Please, it would be a comfort ..."

Miss Fujizawa was silent, fixing upon her a basilisk gaze, her expression the same as the day she'd paid an unannounced visit to Barbara's conversation class and found her demonstrating American dances-the twist, the monkey, and the swim-for her giggling students. Barbara's predecessor, Carol Sutherland, would never have exhibited such behavior. There was a picture of her in the college catalogue, lecturing from her desk on the raised teaching platform.

"We can store the wine in the cellar of the hall," Miss Fujizawa was saying. "It will only be in your way, I think. A trouble to you." She laughed suddenly. "I do not think you are a drunkard."

Mrs. Nakano laughed politely, covering her mouth with one hand.

Sato and Murai bobbed up and down, grinning. Though they didn't understand English, they were used to humorous incidents at the gaijin's apartment.

"I believe she feels quite sad in consequence of Nakamoto sensei's death," Mrs. Nakano said.

"Yes, exactly," Barbara said. She had a wrenchingly clear memory of Michi-san, wren-like in her brown skirt and sweater as she stood at Barbara's door, a plate of freshly cooked tempura in her hands. "I just wanted to see your face this evening-how are you doing?"

"We are all saddened by Professor Nakamoto's unfortunate demise," Miss Fujizawa said. "Miss Jefferson, if you would kindly wait in the Western-style room we will see to the arrangement of the chest for you." She spoke in Japanese to the workmen, gesturing toward the open drawer of bottles. They came to attention and stepped forward. "Hai," they said, bowing energetically. "Hai, hai."

"I want the wine," Barbara shouted. "Michi-san gave it to me-you can't take it."

For a moment they studied her gravely. Then all but Miss Fujizawa tactfully lowered their eyes. "We are sorry we have upset you too much," Miss Fujizawa said. "We will leave you to your rest."

They turned and filed down the hall past the kitchen and Western-style parlor, Miss Fujizawa pausing at each room to take in its condition. The door closed.

Barbara listened to the footsteps going down the stairs, then sat beside the tansu, inhaling its dark, tangy odor. Michi had told her the chest was unusual in that it had been made entirely of camphor wood. The bottles of wine were stocky, the papers tight around them. She laid her hand on one of the wines, feeling the coolness of the glass beneath the paper. The coolness rose up her arm, and gooseflesh prickled her skin.

Michi-san had known she was going to die, otherwise she wouldn't have thought of leaving her the chest.

She looked at the note again. There was a date: 1.1.1966. New Year's Day, just a few weeks ago. She'd been in Michi's apartment that night. Had she written this before the New Year's dinner or afterwards? She imagined Michi sitting at her table, the dishes cleared away, the pen moving across the page. Four days later, she had died.

Barbara leapt up and went across the hall to Michi's apartment. The door was closed, but not locked. She stepped inside and walked to the large sitting room. There was nothing but tatami matting and bare walls. Gone were the crowded bookshelves, the woodblock prints, the collection of bonsai, and the low table below the window. Michi had served the New Year's day meal there, all the foods prepared just for Barbara: the chewy rice cakes called mochi and bream wrapped in bamboo leaves and served with carrots cut in the shape of turtles "for good luck and longevity." Had she said for your good luck and longevity? She thought of Michi's face, her sympathetic but penetrating gaze, her full lips; perhaps there had been a melancholy smile.

Miss Fujizawa had said Michi died of a "heartstroke." She must have had symptoms-angina-and sensed it coming.

Circling the room, Barbara touched the walls, which were cold and smooth except for one crooked nail.

The tatami still showed the imprint of the table legs. She and Michi had spent many evenings there, often with a cup of plum wine: "a night hat," Michi had called it.

"Why did you come to Japan, Barbara-san?" Michi had asked her.

"My mother," she'd said, going on to explain about her having been a foreign correspondent here in the 1930s, before the war, and how her mother had been talking about Japan for as long as Barbara could remember. That was why she'd taken Mrs. Nakano's graduate seminar, modern Japanese literature in translation, and one day impulsively asked if there might be an opening at her college. And she'd been at loose ends, she told her, a love affair over, her dissertation stalled.

Michi's Ph.D. had been in history-rare for a woman in Japan-but Barbara didn't know her area of specialization, or why she'd chosen history. She wished, as she had many times since Michi's death, that she'd asked her more questions. She looked around the empty room. It was too late now.

She closed Michi's door gently behind her. In her six-mat room, the tansu looked bereft, marooned sideways in the middle of the room. There wasn't space for another chest in here. She walked into the tiny tatami bedroom, just off the sitting room. The ugly metal bed filled most of the space. Not only was the bed too large, but lying in it she felt too large herself, like Alice in Wonderland at her tallest crammed inside the white rabbit's house. If she got rid of the bed she could sleep on a futon; Carol's was still in the closet. Then the tansu would fit here too.

The bed was on casters. She pushed it through the door, across the tatami six-mat room and into the Western-style room. She'd ask the workmen to come get it later. What a laugh they'd have; they had delivered a series of beds the first few weeks she was here, each one longer than the last, until one was found to accommodate her size.

Barbara settled the wine chest against the south wall of the bedroom so that it would be near her head when she slept. She had adopted the Japanese superstition that only the dead sleep facing north. She thought of Michi stretched out in her coffin, then quickly pushed back the image. Michi was ashes now, anyway. How could ashes face north? It was like one of those impossible zen koan riddles.

Outside it was growing dark. The snow was coming down steadily now, a blur of white flakes.

Barbara drew the curtains and sat beside the tansu. The wines were arranged in reverse chronological order, right to left, like a Japanese text. There were no wines for the years 1943-1948; the gap was filled with crumpled paper. The oldest wine in the bottom drawer was dated 1930. Michi-san had been in her early forties when she died; she would have been quite a young girl in 1930, too young to make wine.

She slid open the top drawer again and took out the 1965 wine, made from last summer's plums. She untied the cord and broke the seal with her fingernail, then removed the heavy rice paper from the bottle.

She caught her breath. The inside of the page was covered with close vertical columns of Japanese characters. The calligraphy was meticulous but delicate, written with a brush rather than a pen. Most of the characters were intricate kanji, the literary ideograms that took Japanese schoolchildren years to learn. Barbara didn't know any kanji or either of the other alphabets; even the simplest character on this page-there was a backwards C with a deep undercurl at the top-meant nothing to her. It was like looking at a page of unfamiliar music and not being able to hear the melody.

She lifted out the next bottle, 1964, and unwrapped it. This paper too was covered with writing. It was thrilling. "This is my history," Michi said with a bitter laugh the night she'd shown her the tansu. She'd told Barbara of her failure to publish in her academic field, which was almost exclusively the domain of male professors. Barbara had thought she been referring to the wines; making wine was a woman's work.

Barbara chose a bottle at random from the middle drawer. She fumbled with the knotted string, slipped it over the bottle; in her haste to undo the seal, she made a small tear in the paper. It could be blank. But as she unrolled it she saw more columns of Japanese characters and at the bottom, an ink drawing of plum blossoms. Tears sprang to her eyes. She ran her hand slowly across the surface of the chest, her inheritance. Michi had left this to her.

Vivid with excitement, she walked through the apartment, to the kitchen where Michi had showed her how to "tame" her stove-twin burners that were difficult to light-through the Western-style room that now seemed eccentric rather than cold, with its funny, mismatched furniture, into the six-mat tatami room. The whole place seemed altered by Michi's gift, filled with her presence.

The fox-woman scroll hanging in the shadowy alcove should go in the bedroom too. When Michi had first seen the painting-a woman in kimono with flowing hair and the head of a fox-she exclaimed, "Where have you found this?" Barbara explained that it was given to her mother by a Japanese man who said she must be a fox in human form, she was so bewitching with her long blond hair.

"This is an interesting coincidence," Michi said. "My mother claimed an ability to comprehend the language of foxes. There are many stories of fox women in Japan. I think this one illustrates the fox woman leaving her child."

Barbara took down the scroll and pulled out the nail; using her thick Japanese tourist guide as a hammer, she hung the fox woman in the bedroom beside the window.

It was still not quite dark, early for bed, but she wanted to be in the futon she'd made up, under the electric blanket.

She undressed and slid into the futon. The camphor fragrance of the chest filled the room, a subtle incense. Why would Michi have given the tansu to her, the one person on the campus who couldn't read Japanese?

Barbara glanced up at the fox woman. Her image was clearer than it had been in the recessed tokonoma. She seemed alive, glancing back over her shoulder for a last glimpse of her half-human, half-fox child, as she headed down a path lined with willow trees.

The fox's profile was delicately feminine, with just a suggestion of sharp incisors inside the slightly opened mouth. She could be speaking, saying goodbye. Maybe it was this angle and this light, but her face and figure had a pathos Barbara hadn't noticed before.