The Surplus Bride: A Story

by KAN EGUCHI

1

HERE we go. Push. Harder. Like this. See?” Gihei threw himself against the handle of the press, his face turning scarlet from the effort. He looked around at the others as he heaved. “Sesame and farmers, they used to say. The harder you squeeze the more you get out of them. Here we go. Push, everybody. The harder you push, the more comes out.”

Gihei was a farmer-landowner, well-to-do above the village average. He was not thinking particularly about the farmer, this time on the squeezing end of the machine, or about the sesame seed being squeezed. He only wanted to get the last drop of oil he could, and he was repeating what he had already said several times before. The rest of them, the young widow O-kayo too, pushed away at the press. No one paused to consider Gihei’s words. O-kayo threw all her strength into her hips in one last determined push. Only two or three more drops fell down into the bowl, and the handle of the press refused to move farther.

“Push harder. Harder.”

“It’s no good. It won’t go any farther, no matter how hard you push,” Heiji, the younger son, flung out as he pulled back from the press. He peered down at the bowl, into which not a drop of oil was falling.

“I am worn out.” His sister straightened up from the handle and began beating her fists against the hips of her blue serge trousers to drive away the fatigue.

“No more?” Gihei’s wife O-tame called out, a tone of regret in her voice, from far back in the earth-floored workroom where she was tending the boiler. She came a little forward with kindling in her hand and looked out at the others.

Gihei too finally left the press. “That’s it, I guess.” His words were a signal that the pressing was over, and O-kayo too was free to stand up. This did not mean that she could take her ease like the others, however. She pressed her hands against her hips, flexed her legs, stretched her body two or three times to take a little of the stiffness from her back, and was off about the next job.

First she slipped out the two poles that were inserted at right angles across the top of the press to form four handles. She removed the screw and the lid, took out the oily hemp bag, and emptied the leavings into a basket. The light sesame, crushed and wrung of its oil, rustled like wet, brown sand.

“Is it ready yet?” Gihei asked.

O-tame took the lid off the boiler, Great clouds of steam rose from it and half concealed the far wall of the workroom.

“Hmm. About right, I’d say.” O-tame’s hand came out of the steam with a swollen hemp bag. O-kayo went to take it and poured the boiled sesame seed into the bag she had just emptied. The tips of her fingers smarted from the steam. She put the full bag into the press, screwed down the lid, and inserted the two poles again.

It was time for another pressing. Gihei, of course, and his wife and Heiji, and even the daughter, stood in the doorway watching until everything was ready. O-kayo was left to do the work.

“I guess they’re right about light sesame. Look at that oil. Nothing like it from the dark.” When the four were back in their places behind the poles Gihei spoke again, looking down repeatedly at the press. From the body of the machine, constructed like two mortars piled one on the other, the yellow oil poured into a groove and fell shining through a mouthlike opening on one side into a lipped bowl below. “Over there they got only four quarts to the bushel from the dark.”

“That’s what you get from the dark.” O-tame spoke again from back by the ovens.

“Bet we get at least six from the light. Think so?” Heiji asked his father.

“Five and a half, no better. That’s why the stuff’s so high. You use up wood boiling it, you get yourself into a sweat pressing it, and look what comes out. The government price is damned foolishness.” Gihei pushed at the pole as though to set an example for the rest. He went on half to himself, “It’s gotten so you hate to use it even when company comes. You can hardly have a priest in for prayers any more.”

O-kayo looked around in spite of herself at the mention of prayers. Gihei was of course referring to the seventh-anniversary services, only four days off now, for O-kayo’s dead husband. How she had waited, this last year, for that anniversary to come, that seventh anniversary of Seikichi’s death in the war. There was the other son Heiji. He was seventeen, and he would in due course be head of the family. There seemed to be nothing in the way of it. “They can get along without me,” O-kayo would say to herself. “They’d even be better off without me.” She had asked long before to be allowed to go back to her family. But Gihei and his wife would have none of it. How could she think of leaving before the seventh-anniversary memorial services? It was very well to say that she had no children, but what would the neighbors think? And so O-kayo had been kept on against her will.

But once the services were over. . . . If O-kayo’s mother came for them, O-kayo would have her ask Gihei again, very clearly this time. They would have to let her go. They surely would if her mother asked. Once back with her family O-kayo could start life over again. That was her great hope.

It was ten years before, at just this time of the year, that she married Seikichi. She was working as a maid in a little Tokyo restaurant when a telegram came summoning her home to her village, some four or five miles from this one. She arrived to find the marriage arranged with such finality that there was nothing she could do about it. There had been vague talk of herself and Seikichi before. Now he was going to war, and he had to get married before he left. It was quite necessary. And so O-kayo, unable to protest, was brought here as a bride. It was her clear duty to comfort a man who was going off to fight for his country.

A perfunctory ceremony, and five days later Seikichi left. The confusion of those five days. The bridal calls on neighbors and relatives. The farewell dinner. The line walking the two miles to the station to see him off. The reporting at the station, and the speeches that went with it. Those five days were a dream for O-kayo.

Seikichi did not once write to O-kayo. The army post cards came for his parents and his brother and sister, and at the end of them he would say, “My best to O-kayo.” North China, Central China, and the third year the last message, from South China.

The announcement of his death came about six months later. A hundred days after that the ashes arrived. O-kayo, dressed in mourning like the rest, went with the family to the station, but it was Heiji who carried the ashes home. O-kayo was not allowed to. It was the heir who carried the ashes, and his parents had decided in the course of time that Heiji and not O-kayo was Seikichi’s heir.

O-kayo was not particularly conscious of the sorrow that goes with losing a husband, either when they went to the station for the ashes or when they buried them up on the hill behind the house. Seikichi when he left had said over and over again to O-kayo that she was to demonstrate her filial piety by working hard enough for the two of them, and she had indeed worked that hard in the years since. On that point she had nothing for which to reprove herself. It would not be a very serious breach of duty if she went back to her family now.

O-kayo, straining at the press, wiped the sweat from her face with the sleeve of her kimono, made over from a man’s work kimono. She looked absently out through the workroom doors. The barley fields sloped off to the south and the rice paddies stretched on below them, backed by the hills in the next village. On the levee of a stream through the paddies three little girls were gathering greens. Everything seemed to waver in the bright sunlight — indeed shimmering waves were rising over the whole landscape. Thus had spring come hurrying even here, to this village half lost in a mountain wilderness. There was further evidence of spring in the hills, where a magnolia spread its blossoms wide against the cedars of a shrine grove.

As she looked at the magnolia, like strings of white jewels set off in shining dots against the darkness of the cedars, O-kayo thought of an old saying by which the farmers in these parts were guided: “When the magnolias bloom you start the sweet potatoes; when the cuckoos sing you set out the taro.”

“That’s right — I’d forgotten. Here the magnolias are in bloom and I hadn’t even noticed. We had the tobacco out the middle of March, but we haven’t even started on the sweet potatoes. I’ll have to hurry up with them. I hear you can get a yen a sprout, maybe more. A bird flying away shouldn’t leave any dirt behind it, they say — even if they do let me go home I’ll take care of the sweet potatoes at least.”

O-kayo felt strangely harried as she looked beyond the paddies at the magnolias, a natural calendar more reliable for the farmer than any formal one.

The work went on until evening.

2

O-KAYO had been working steadily since the day before. This morning she was up before daybreak and she had not allowed herself a rest since. She was always a harder worker than any of the other young wives in the neighborhood, but today in particular it seemed that she would grind herself to a powder. The cooking for the memorial services had been left almost entirely to her. If this was indeed to be her last duty to Gihei and his family, she thought, she must force herself on, no matter how exhausted she might feel.

From the front room she could hear chanting voices. Some ten old women from the village, each in a formal black kimono and cloak and each with a priest’s pouch strapped over her breast, were kneeling in front of the family altar, ringing bells in rhythm as they chanted the same prayer over and over. This was part of the seventh-anniversary services for Seikichi.

The priest had already finished his prayers. When the old women finished theirs, the whole party would go to pay their respects at the cemetery up on the hilltop, and back here afterwards the trays of food would be brought out, first for the priest and the old women, next for the neighbors, then for the relatives, last for the immediate family.

There would be more than forty trays in all. O-kayo too would have to go off to the cemetery, and she would have to have everything ready, all the trays laid out, before she left. They were piled one on another there in the back room, each tray with its stand to keep it from crushing the food on the one below. O-kayo would heat sake when she came back from the cemetery and rush to serve the guests.

There were of course a few women from the neighborhood to help her, but O-kayo, as the young wife of the family, had to outwork them all. The sleepy sound of the chanting and the sleepier sound of the bells made her feel still more pressed as she thought of what must be done.

She worked on feverishly, and the trays were for the most part ready by the time the chanting stopped. She had to hurry then to change her kimono. When she ran from the house, still knotting the cord on her cloak, the others were climbing in a line up the steep little path to the cemetery.

O-kayo began to look for her mother, Rie, who had come to the services to represent O-kayo’s family. O-kayo had only had time to greet her, and had not yet been able really to talk to her. Somehow on the way to or from the ceremony O-kayo had to draw her mother aside and beg her to talk to Gihei. As she climbed up toward the others along the red earth of the path, O-kayo’s eyes came to rest on her mother’s back.

Rie was getting along in years, and fortunately for O-kayo she soon began falling behind the others. Presently she was at the end of the line. O-kayo overtook her by the time they reached the top of the slope.

A grove of oaks stretched before them across the mountain’s flat top. The naked trees had begun to awaken with the warmth of the last few days, and every branch and every twig as far as the eye could see was touched with the silver of new buds. The grove was flooded with an almost dazzling light as it reflected the slanting rays of the sun. O-kayo felt warm from the climb. She was tempted to take off her cloak. Carrying her large, full body as though it were almost too much for her, she looked sidelong at her mother.

“Listen, mother. . .”The words she had used since she was a child came automatically from her lips. “It’s been a long time. Won’t you stay tonight?”

“I could, I guess.”

“Stay, then. There’s something I want you to talk to him about.”

“What’s that?” Rie, bent over a stick during the climb, pulled herself straight and looked up at her daughter.

“You know — what I told you before.” O-kayo laughed a little shyly. “I told you to talk him into letting me go home, once this is over.”

“Oh, that.” There was immediate sympathy in her mother’s voice. “When you think about it, you’ve lead the life of a widow for ten years. Ten years is long enough at your age.”

“It certainly is. Mother . . . you have to get him to let me go this time.”

At the words “ten years” O-kayo saw herself as an intensely pathetic figure. Five days of married life, and ten years alone. She had worked on among people who were nothing to her, quite without regard for herself, only to make a home for a husband away at war. Now she must win back her freedom, get away from this monotonous, this wretched existence. She must. Her innermost heart insisted on it.

And yet somehow she felt apologetic to the dead Seikichi. What would he be thinking if he could see her now, coming to his grave with thoughts like these hidden inside her? But that was senseless. When the ashes came back Seikichi’s father, puzzled at how light they were, had opened the box and found inside only a handful of sand. Seikichi was not here. Still O-kayo’s feet dragged.

This mountain-top plateau, grown over now with oak, was until 1928 or so a field where Gihei and his family had grown barley and sweet potatoes. With the farm depression and the precipitous fall in prices, however, Gihei announced in disgust that he could no longer make enough from it to pay taxes, and planted it in oak. Taxes on forest land were much lower. That was twenty years ago, and in the course of time this grove had grown up. “Have to cut it one of these days,” Gihei liked to say, but the rising price of kindling and charcoal seemed so promising that he let it grow on year after year.

“A fine growth if ever I saw one,”he would say proudly each winter when he and O-kayo came to gather dead leaves for fertilizer. Mixed with his pride in the trees was satisfaction at the rice he got, one bushel per acre of leaves, for letting the tenants take what was left when he and O-kayo had finished. O-kayo knew all about that.

At the very back of the grove were the family graves, a jumble of them, large and small, in a raised plot of ground hedged with cedars, some fifteen yards square. Off in a corner was Seikichi’s grave, its raw wooden marker appropriate for one who died in the war.

The incense in front of the marker sent up purple smoke. Bright flowers had been set out here and there over the grave in new bamboo containers. Everyone in turn offered incense, Gihei first and O-kayo after the other relatives. When the last had finished Heiji made the proper speech of thanks as the appointed heir.

Heiji seemed older today — was it because he had on the woolen officer’s uniform Gihei had managed to get for next to nothing in the confusion at the end of the war? His shoulders were strong and square, his figure was tall, and the black down now clear on his upper lip gave him still more the look of a young man.

O-kayo could see as though he were there before her the Heiji, still almost an infant, who saw Seikichi off to war. Little Heiji who had barely started to school. Heiji with his new student’s cap settling around his ears. Heiji as he stood there on the platform happily waving a little paper rising sun. That child already seventeen, already smoking, talking like this, quite the grownup? As clearly as if she had measured afresh with a ruler, O-kayo knew how long they had been, those ten years of months and days that had gone by so swiftly.

“Ah, and I’m already twenty-eight.” Her regret was a little sharper even than usual for what she had wasted, thrown away, what she had seen flow off down the current of those years, her youth that would not come back.

3

THE ovens along the back wall faced out on a wooden platform some two yards wide and four yards long, slightly higher than the earth floor of the workroom and lower than the back room with its open fireplace. It was well past eight when O-kayo finished eating there with the women who had come to help.

“Well, we did it somehow.” The thought gave O-kayo a sense of security, of having come through a crisis. She had too a happy feeling that the labor of these last few days, wasted though it was on but this fleeting occasion, was seeing its reward.

And yet a strange restlessness persisted. Her mother had been in the front room ever since the trays were passed out, and had not once shown her face here in the kitchen. That could only mean that the negotiations with Gihei were not going smoothly. O-kayo’s quiet manner concealed a tense impatience.

Presently the work began again. It was while the dishes were being washed that Gihei’s wife O-tame came out to call O-kayo. “O-kayo. Father says come in. He wants to talk to you.”

O-kayo started at the words. More uneasy than ever, she quickly wiped her hands on her apron and started in behind O-tame.

Only Gihei and O-kayo’s mother were in the front room. None of the other guests had stayed past nine. O-kayo immediately sensed something she did not like about the atmosphere of the room, even with but the two of them sitting quietly there.

Appropriately for the day, the tokonoma was decorated with a painting of the Bodhisattva of Mercy. In front of it Gihei sat at his ease, his legs crossed grandly. His face was a flaming red from the sake, his eyes were glassy. He seemed to have drunk more than his share in his duties as a host. Rie, on the opposite side of the porcelain brazier, looked smaller than usual, perhaps because she sat hunched over with her eyes on the floor.

“Well, O-kayo.” O-kayo sat close to her mother. Gihei’s eyes, traveling slowly over her face, were red-rimmed from the trachoma that had long bothered him. “Matter of fact. . . . This evening I had something I was going to ask, see? Then your mother here comes and says you want to go back home. But what I have to ask is a good bit better.” He turned to his wife. “Call Heiji while you’re up. This is so good it can’t wait. Not even till tomorrow.”

Gihei sat smiling to himself while O-tame was off looking for Heiji. His eyes, turned up in a leer, moved over O-kayo’s body. That leering gaze was nothing new. Indeed it was turned on her whenever an opportunity arose. She knew perfectly well what it meant. She knew too, however, that she was not the only one so honored. Whenever Gihei met a plump, fair-complexioned woman of about thirty, whoever she might be, he caressed her quite openly with his eyes. O-kayo always felt itchy and uncomfortable when the process began, first in the parts of her body on which his eyes rested, then more generally until she was conscious of perspiration rising under her arms and breasts, and in the end she would find herself trembling.

Tonight Gihei’s eyes were persistent and intimate as they had never been before. O-kayo trembled so violently that she thought the others must sense it. The air of the room became more and more oppressive with the silence that fell when O-tame left. O-kayo felt an almost painful smarting all over her body. She waited tensely for O-tame, whose return would bring relief from this feeling of uncleanness.

O-tame came back surprisingly soon, and with her Heiji, still in the woolen uniform he had worn during the day. He had recently learned the pleasures of wandering out at night, but he seemed to have nowhere to go this evening.

“Well, O-kayo.” With his wife and son seated beside him, Gihei brought his caressing gaze to a halt and turned again to the matter at hand. “Couldn’t find a wife as good as you anywhere in town. I’ve always said it. It’d be a waste, wouldn’t it, to let you go back home and get married off to someone else. I’ve been thinking about it this way: you can marry Heiji here. Isn’t that a fine idea? How about it, O-tame?”

A suggestion of a smile passed over Gihei’s face as he looked from O-tame to Heiji. O-tame bowed slightly, indicating of course that she approved. But Heiji glanced searchingly at O-kayo before him, then turned quickly to one side.

“You’re joking. You think I could do a thing like that?” The scarlet rose from his neck in its high-collared khaki and up over his jaws. O-kayo, quite against her will, burst into a laugh. She found it impossible to treat Gihei’s words as more than a drunken joke. She only laughed louder as Heiji’s face grew redder. How funny it was, the confusion on that childish face!

But neither Rie nor O-tame laughed, and Gihei continued with a seriousness he had not had before.

“There aren’t many like her in the whole country, Heiji. Look. They told us we had to grow more during the war, and she opened up twelve or thirteen acres in the hills all by herself. Look at the barley and rice we’re getting from it now. And the tobacco. She does it almost all herself, doesn’t she? From the seeding all the way through to the drying. She takes care of the horses, she can cook and sew. Look, now: you marry O-kayo and ser what a help she is. Why she’s as good as a horse, easy, Try buying a horse. You can’t get the skinniest nag for under ten thousand.” He broke into raucous laughter.

It was hard to tell whether his last words were serious or joking. He scratched some dandruff* from his graying hair, then began again. “Look, Heiji. The services are over and her mother’s here and everything. Couldn’t be better. Let’s go ahead and say the words right here.”

“Marry her, my own sister? I won’t. I can’t.”

“What are you talking about. There’s nothing wrong with it. Just say the words and you’re married right here tonight.”

“I say I don’t want to. That’s all. My own brother’s wife. I’m against it, whatever you say.”

“What’s wrong with it? Wife, you call her? What if she was. Why, it was all over with her in five days, nothing before, nothing since. What was it they called it in the war? — a skin wound. Nothing to worry about. It’s ten years now, and she’s healed over as good as new. Not even a scar.”

“But I don’t want to. That’s all there is to it.” The flush and the embarrassment had disappeared, and in their place an expression of something like annoyance passed over Heiji’s dark, pimply face. His lips were puckered into a pout.

“You know of something better? What sort of wife are you going to find yourself?”

“Me?” Heiji was silent for a moment. He cocked his head to one side and smiled shyly. The embarrassment came back and a faint blush spread over his checks again. “I want . . . someone like the Ginza, all lit up with bright lights.” He jumped up, the wrinkles around his nose showing his confusion, whipped aside the door and disappeared into the next room.

Gihei rocked with laughter. O-kayo laughed too. And O-tame. Even Rie, who had been silent throughout the interview, broke into a high laugh in spite of herself. For a time the room fairly shook with laughter.

But O-kayo was thinking to herself: What do I do now?

Translated by Edward Sridensticker