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Botchan: Chapter One (Sample)
The reckless streak that runs in my family has kept me in trouble since I was a kid. In elementary school I jumped out of a second-floor window and hurt myself so badly I had to stay in bed for a week. Right now I bet some of you are wondering why I'd do such a stupid thing. No particular reason. The second floor had just been added, and I was sticking my head out to check out the view when another kid outside shouted up at me: "You think you're so great, but I bet you're too chicken to jump down from there! Buck b'cawk!" He was just kidding around, but I did it anyway. The janitor had to carry me home. When I got there, my father's eyes went wide. "Who the hell puts themselves in traction jumping from a second-floor window?" he asked. "Next time I'll try not to hurt myself," I told him.
Another time, one of my relatives gave me a knife from overseas. When I held the blade up to the sunlight to show my friends how awesome it was, one of them said, "It's shiny enough, but it doesn't look like it'd cut worth shit."
"Shut up, buttmunch. It'll cut anything you like," I replied.
"OK, smart guy. Cut your finger, then."
"Is that all? Watch this," I said, and cut a diagonal line into the ball of my right thumb. Luckily the knife was small and the thumb-bone was hard, so my thumb is still attached to my hand. But the scar will be there until I die.
Our family home had a yard to the east. If you walked twenty paces out that way, you came upon a little vegetable garden on a gently rising slope to the south. In the middle of the garden stood a single chestnut tree. I loved those chestnuts more than life. When they were in season, the very first thing I would do every morning was go out the back door and collect the nuts that had fallen overnight, to eat at school that day.
Bordering the vegetable garden to the west was the back yard of a pawn shop called Yamashiro's, and the eldest son of the owner was a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old boy named Kantarō. Kantarō was a total wimp. But he was a wimp with just enough guts to climb over the latticed bamboo fence and steal my chestnuts.
One evening, I hid behind the folding back door and lay in wait for him. Eventually, Kantarō came out as usual, and I caught him in the act. He knew he was caught, and he had nowhere to run, so he came right at me instead. And even though he was a wimp, he was still two years older than me and had the edge as far as pure strength goes. He rammed his big triangle of a head into my chest and was trying to grind the wind out of me when his head slipped and went up the sleeve of my kimono. I couldn't use my fists with him in there, so I shook my arm, trying to get him out, but all I managed to do was rattle his head back and forth in the sleeve. Finally, he couldn't take it in my sleeve any more, and bit into my upper arm. That hurt. I rammed him up against the fence and used a sumo
leg lock to throw him back into his own yard again.
The Yamashiros' yard was maybe six feet lower than our vegetable garden. Kantarō tore down half the bamboo fence and landed on his side hard and upside-down. When he fell, he took my kimono sleeve with him and freed up my whole arm all at once. That night, when my mother went to apologise to the Yamashiros, she got my sleeve back too.
I got into other trouble too. One time I was with the carpenter's kid Kanekō and Kaku from the fish shop, and we completely trashed the Mosakus' carrot patch. The places where the sprouts were coming up unevenly were covered in straw, so the three of us spent half a day sumo wrestling on that makeshift ring, and crushed the carrots beyond recognition.
Another time, I blocked up a well in one of the Furukawas' fields. That got my ass in big trouble. It was the kind of well that's mostly filled in but has a tube of wide Confucius-bamboo
jammed down deep inside. The water comes up through the tube and out onto the rice plants. At the time, I didn't know anything about irrigation, so I just stuffed rocks and twigs into the hole until I saw that the water had stopped come out and then went home for dinner. While we were eating Mr Furukawa came in red-faced and yelling. I'm pretty sure my parents had to pay for the damage I did that time.
My father never showed me the tiniest bit of affection, and my mother loved my big brother more than me. He was disgustingly fair-skinned, and he loved putting on pretend kabuki
plays in which he always took the female parts
. Whenever my old man looked at me, though, he'd say, "This one'll never amount to anything." My mother would agree, saying, "He's always so violent — I hate to imagine where he'll end up." I have to admit, though, I never did
amount to anything. What you see right now is what you get. I'm not surprised that my mother worried about where I'd end up, either. I've managed to keep myself off a chain gang, but only barely.
Two or three days before my mother died, I was trying to do a somersault in the kitchen when I hit a rib on the stove. It hurt like hell. My mother was furious, shouting about how she didn't even want to see my face, so I went to stay with relatives. I got the news that she'd died while I was there. I hadn't thought she'd go so quickly. I went back home, wishing that I'd known she was so unwell. If I'd known, I would have been a little less obnoxious. My brother told me I was a bad son, with no filial piety
at all. "Mommy died because of you," he concluded. This upset me, so I hit him upside the head. That got me yelled at too.
After my mother died, it was just my father, my brother and me. My old man was a waste of space. Every time he caught sight of my face, he'd tell me, "You're no good, you rotten bastard," like it was a catchphrase. I still don't know what was so rotten about me. Just had a messed-up father, I guess. My brother said he wanted to become a businessman, and was always studying English. His personality was basically a woman's, and he was sneaky with it, so we didn't get along at all. We'd fight about once every ten days.
Once when we were playing shōgi
he set up a weasely camping trap and started smirking about the trouble it made for me. I was so pissed off that I threw the "flying chariot" rook piece I was holding right at him. It hit him right between the eyes, so hard that his forehead even bled a little. He told my old man and my old man said that he was going to disown me.
I believed him, too, and I resigned myself to being disowned — but then the servant we'd had for ten years, Kiyo, started crying and begging my old man to forgive me. Eventually he did. Still, I was never very scared of him. On the other hand, I felt bad for Kiyo. I'd heard that she was from a good family, but a run of bad luck had brought them so low that now she had to work as a maid. That's why she was so old for a servant.
I have no idea why, but the old lady just adored me. It was a total mystery. My mother had gotten sick of me three days before she died, my father never knew what to do with me, and the whole town called me devil-boy, but Kiyo thought I was the greatest. I'd started thinking that maybe I just wasn't ever going to be popular, and I didn't even notice any more when people treated me like crap, so to be honest I was a little unnerved by the extent of Kiyo's devotion. Sometimes in the kitchen when no-one else was around, she'd praise me for my honesty and directness. This made no sense to me, though: if my honesty and directness were so great, wouldn't people other than Kiyo like me too? So whenever she said something like that to me, I'd tell her I didn't like empty flattery. Then Kiyo would say, "That's exactly what makes you such a lovely person," and gaze at me fondly. She looked as proud as if she'd made me herself. It was faintly gross.
With my mother gone, Kiyo doted on me even more. Now and then I would grow uneasy, wondering in my childish way why she cared so much about me. I wished she'd give it a rest. I felt sorry for her. But she didn't change a bit. Every so often she'd buy me roasted red-bean jam cakes
and sweet rice crackers
out of her own pin money. She would secretly put aside buckwheat flour, then bring warm sobayu broth
to me in bed on cold nights. Sometimes she even bought me a whole helping of udon stew
And it wasn't just food. I also got socks from her. Pencils too, and notebooks. A few years later, she even lent me three whole yen. I hadn't asked her for anything. She just came into my room, said "It must be so awful for you, having no pocket money. Here, this is for you," then gave me the three yen. Of course I told her I didn't need it, but she said no, no, take it, so I told her OK, I'd accept it as a loan. Secretly, I was overjoyed.
I put that three yen in my wallet and put that inside my kimono, but the very next time I went to the bathroom it slipped out and into the toilet. I had no choice but to come out, embarrassed, and tell Kiyo, "I have some bad news..." Once she'd heard the story, she quickly went and found a pole and said she'd fish it out for me. A short while later I heard running water at the well, and went out to find her there, washing my wallet, which was dangling from the end of the bamboo pole by its cord. When we opened it and checked the three one-yen bills, they'd gone brown and the writing on them had started to fade. Kiyo dried them over the brazier, then said, "That should do it," and handed them back to me.
I gave them a sniff. "Pee-yew," I said.
"OK, then, give them here," she replied. "I'll go and get new ones for you." I don't know where she went or what kind of story she told there, but she came back with three yen in silver change. I've forgotten now what I eventually spent them on. I told Kiyo at the time that I'd pay her back soon, but I never did. Now even if I wanted to pay her back ten times over, I couldn't.
Kiyo would only ever give me things when neither my old man nor my brother were around. But there's nothing I hate more than sneaking around and doing better for yourself than the people around you. I didn't get along with my brother, of course, but I still didn't want to be secretly getting sweets and colored pencils and things from Kiyo when he got nothing. I once asked her why she gave things only to me and never to him. She explained that it was because my brother probably got plenty of presents from my old man. This struck me as a bit unfair. My old man was stubborn, but he wasn't the kind of man to do something like that. But I guess that's how Kiyo saw it. She must have been completely blinded by love. There was no helping that, though — she an uneducated old lady from a good family which must've kept her sheltered.
It wasn't just presents, either. Her favoritism was a fearsome thing. She was convinced that I would grow up to be a great success. On the other hand, she had decided that my honor student brother was nothing but a pretty face, no use to anyone. Old ladies are like that. They always believe that the people they like will do great things, while the people they don't will sink and vanish. As for me, I had no intention back then of becoming anything in particular. But because Kiyo kept talking about how bright my future was, eventually I started to believe that maybe it would be. It seems idiotic when I think of it now. Once I asked Kiyo what exactly she thought I was going to make of myself, but she didn't seem to have any idea at all. "All I know is that you're going to ride in a rickshaw and live in a big mansion. There's no doubt about that," she said.
She was also determined to come and live with me once I'd bought this mansion. "All I ask is a single room," she begged me, over and over. And I, starting to feel like maybe I would
end up with a mansion, would say, "Sure, I can spare a room." But she had a vivid imagination, and she'd go on: "So, where do you plan to live? Kōji
? Oh, and we mustn't forget to put a swing in the garden. But one Western-style room is enough, don't you think?" On and on, making plan after plan for us all by herself. What's more, at that time I didn't even want a house. Western style, Japanese style, I didn't have any interest in either, and I told her so over and over. She just said that it was exactly that lack of avarice that showed how pure my heart was. She could find a way to turn anything I said into proof of my sainthood.
I lived like this for five or six years after my mother died. My father yelled at me. I fought with my brother. Kiyo gave me sweets and spoiled me. I had no particular ambitions. Things seemed fine to me. I assumed that other kids all lived the same way. But Kiyo would find any excuse to tell me how pitiful and sad my situation was, and before long I started to think that maybe I was
pitiful and sad after all. Apart from that, my life was trouble-free, except for the fact that my father wouldn't give me any pocket money.
Then, six years after my mother died, the old man had a stroke in early January and passed away too. I finished middle school that April, and my brother graduated from business college in June. He found a job working in some company's Kyushu
branch, which meant he had to leave Tokyo. I had to stay there for my studies. My brother told me that he was going to sell the house, put our parents' affairs in order and then head off to his new job. I told him to do whatever he wanted. I didn't want any favors from him. If I accepted any, the next time we fought he was guaranteed to make some snide remark about ingratitude. I wasn't about to start deferring to him just so he'd look after me. I was determined to take care of myself even if it meant becoming a milk delivery boy.
My brother called a second-hand shop and sold off all our family's old junk as quickly as he could. The house we sold to a tycoon somebody introduced us to. This made us a lot of money, apparently, but I don't know the details. I had been staying in Ogawa in Kanda
for a month by that point, trying to figure out what to do. I didn't feel good about handing the house Kiyo had lived in for ten years over to someone else, but it didn't belong to me and there was nothing I could do about it. "If only you were a little older, you could have inherited the house," Kiyo sighed. But if I would have been able to inherit it in a few years, I should just as easily have been able to inherit it now. The old lady was so clueless she thought that a few years would give me the right to take my brother's house.
He and I were satisfied with parting ways like this, but the problem was what to do with Kiyo. Naturally, my brother didn't have the means to take her with him, and Kiyo wasn't remotely interested in going with him to Kyushu anyway. As for me, I was holed up in a tiny four-and-a-half tatami mat
room from which I might get evicted at any time. We didn't really have any options.
I asked Kiyo if she'd thought about taking another job as a servant somewhere. "Until you buy your mansion and find a wife, I'll just have to stay with my nephew," she said, mind clearly made up. This nephew was a court clerk, living a fairly easy life, and he'd told her two or three times before that she could come stay with him she wanted to. Kiyo had always replied that she was the kind of person who'd rather live somewhere she was used to, even if it meant being a maid, and had never taken him up on his offer. But it must have looked a lot better now, when the other option was to become a servant at some stranger's house. Even so, she told me to hurry up and get my mansion and wife together so that she could come and take care of me. She seemed fonder of me than of her own nephew.
Two days before he left for Kyushu, my brother came to my boarding house and gave me six hundred yen. "Here's your capital," he said. "Start a business, go to college, do whatever the hell you like. Just know that I'm not going to give you any more." Coming from my brother, that was a pretty moving speech. I'd already decided not to be a burden to him, but this idea of a fair, clean break appealed to me, so I thanked him and accepted the money. He then gave me fifty more yen and told me to give it to Kiyo. I saw him off at Shimbashi station two days later and we haven't met since.
What should I do with my six hundred yen? I lay down and thought about it. Going into business sounded like a hassle, and probably wouldn't go well for me anyway. Plus, with only six hundred yen for seed money, I wouldn't be able to put together a very businesslike business. And even if I did earn a living that way, I'd never be able to hold up my head as an educated man if I hadn't actually finished my education. Fuck "capital," I decided: I'm going to use this money to pay my way through school. If I split it into thirds and spent two hundred yen a year, I could study for three years. And if I studied hard for three years, I could probably turn it into some kind of living afterwards.
Next I had to decide which college to go to. I'd never liked any subject at school. Languages and literature were right out. When I read modern poetry, I didn't understand one line in twenty. Eventually I decided that since I didn't like any subject, it didn't really matter what I chose. When I noticed a NOW ACCEPTING STUDENTS sign posted outside the Tokyo School of Natural History
as I walked past one day, I figured that it must be fate, took an application form, and before I knew it I was enrolled. In retrospect, this was just another example of my family's reckless streak making trouble for me.
For the next three years studied about as hard as everyone else, but since I wasn't especially gifted or diligent it was always easier to find my ranking by counting upwards from the bottom of the table. Oddly enough, though, after three years had passed I was ready to graduate. It seemed funny even to me, but I had no complaints and went through the ceremony cheerfully enough.
Eight days after my graduation, the Dean sent for me. It turned out that a certain middle school in Shikoku
was looking for a math teacher. "Forty yen a month. What do you think?" the Dean asked. I'd been studying for three years, but to tell you the truth I'd never been especially interested in becoming a teacher or moving out to the sticks. Still, I didn't have any other plans, so I accepted right away. The curse of the reckless streak had struck again.
I'd made my decision, though, and now I had to go out there and do the job. I'd spent the past three years cramped in that four-and-a-half mat room, but I'd kept my nose clean, and it had been a relatively easy period in my life. Now it was over, and I had to leave. I'd only ever set foot outside Tokyo once before in my life, and that was on a school trip to Kamakura
, only an hour or two away. I was going further than Kamakura this time. A lot
further. When I looked at the map, my destination was a place by the ocean, as small as a pinhead. Nothing special, no doubt. I had no idea what kind of town it was or what kind of people lived there, but didn't care anyway. I wasn't worried in the least, although the journey there would be a hassle.
Since we'd sold off the house, I'd gotten into the habit of visiting Kiyo every so often. Her nephew was a surprisingly stand-up guy. Whenever I turned up on his doorstep, he'd lay on the hospitality while Kiyo sat me down and bragged to him about my many marvelous qualities. "He's about to graduate from college," she'd announce, "And then he's going to buy a house in Kōji and work at City Hall." I would have to just sit there awkwardly, going bright red as she lectured at length on the topic of me. And this wasn't just once or twice. I'd even keep my mouth shut when she'd bring up things like the time I wet my bed when I was little. I have no idea what her nephew thought of all this. But Kiyo was an old-fashioned woman, and she must have thought of our relationship in a feudal, master-and-vassal way. She apparently assumed that if I was her master, I must be her nephew's too. I can't imagine how embarrassing that must have been for him.
Before long my preparations for the journey were complete. Three days before I was due to leave, I came to say goodbye to Kiyo. She was in bed with a cold in her tiny north-facing room. As soon as she saw me she sprang out of bed and asked, "When are you going to buy your house, sweetie?" Apparently she thought that if you graduated from university, money would suddenly start bubbling out of your pockets. And if I was really such a big shot, this ridiculous "sweetie" business had to stop. Anyway, I told her plainly that I wasn't going to buy a house, I was going out to the sticks to teach. She drooped with disappointment and smoothed back her salt-and-pepper hair. I felt sorry for her, so I tried to reassure her: "I'm going
to the sticks, but I'll be back soon. Next summer holiday, for sure." She still looked a little unhappy, so I added, "Come on, I'll buy you something nice while I'm away. What do you want?"
"I want bamboo-leaf candy
," she said.
I'd never heard of Echigo bamboo-leaf candy before. More to the point, I wouldn't be anywhere near Echigo. "I don't think they have bamboo-leaf candy where I'm going," I told her.
"Really? Where are
you going?" she asked.
"West," I said.
"Further west than Hakone
?" she asked.
Hakone was only an hour or so away. I gave up.
On the day I was due to leave, she came by early in the morning and bustled around helping me pack. She'd stopped on the way at a small goods store to buy a toothbrush, toothpick and hand towel, and she put them all in my canvas bag. I told her I didn't need any of that, but she wouldn't listen. We rode together to the station in rickshaws, side-by-side, and when I went up to the platform and boarded the train, she stared at my face through the window and said, in a small voice, "This may be our last farewell. Take care of yourself." Tears were in her eyes. I wasn't crying, but I wasn't far from it, either. Once the steam engine had started up and the train had begun to move, I decided I probably had it under control and poked my head out of the window again to look back. She was still standing there, looking terribly small.