"The Sea" was first published in Japanese by Shinchosha in the collection Umi. Yoko Ogawa's latest novel, Hotel Iris, is published by Harvill Secker.

Where the wind stops for the journey to start

Izumi's family home was farther from the airport than I had imagined. We rattled along for more than an hour in a van and then transferred to a local bus for the last few miles along a riverbank, past paddy fields and a Self-Defense Forces base.

It was our first trip together, the first time we would be staying overnight on the road, but unfortunately it was hardly shaping up as a romantic getaway. The bus ride made her carsick, and I rubbed her back trying to comfort her until my arm was numb. Finally, she couldn't stand it anymore and we got off three stops short of our destination and walked the rest of the way, pausing along the highway from time to time to rest.

Her face was pale and she said almost nothing. Her back seemed so frail I worried that I'd rubbed it too hard. A reed-choked river snaked along to our left, and on our right, a string of hills covered with what appeared to be groves of fruit trees. After the bus drove away, we saw only a few trucks bringing farmers back from the fields, but no one else walking on the road at all. The sun would be setting soon.

Izumi's family was waiting for us outside the gate. We were later than we'd planned and they must have been worried. They stood watching as we approached: her parents, her ninety-year-old grandmother, and her "baby brother." (He was ten years younger and she always referred to him that way.) Even from a distance it was clear that they had been anxious. The first to spot us was the grandmother – whose eyes should have been the poorest. Ignoring her drooping sleeves, she stretched her arms toward us, bending forward and greeting us by rubbing her palms together.

I didn't know much about Izumi's family. Just that they had once grown grapes, but her grandfather's losses in the stock market had cost them their land. Her father had been forced to become a bureaucrat, and her younger brother, who was twenty-one, was a musician of some sort. That was the extent of my knowledge. I had noticed a slight tremor in her voice whenever her family came up, so I had resolved to avoid mentioning them.

When we did have to talk about them, we treated the subject like a peanut that drops from a bowl. We merely had to gather it up, shell it, and pop it in our mouth to be done with it. That was the simplest way to avoid unpleasantness. But now that we were taking time off with the express purpose of visiting her family, that attitude was hardly appropriate – even less so given that I was going to ask their permission to marry her.

The house was old and quite ordinary, but solidly built. A zelkova tree spread over the modest garden, its leaves trembling in the pleasant breeze blowing from the orchards on the slopes above. The preparations for our arrival had been meticulous. The house was spotless, flowers had been set here and there, and the slippers lined up inside the door were brand new. Everything was perfect – so perfect, in fact, that I had the feeling this was not a house that was used to receiving visitors.

"Such a long trip, you must be exhausted." "Please come in, make yourself at home." "Can I get you something to drink?" Her mother and father immediately began a welcoming litany, as though competing to see who could be more hospitable, and giving me no opportunity to apologize for our late arrival. What's more, they were so solicitous of me, they completely failed to notice that their daughter was feeling ill. The grandmother continued to rub her hands together, while baby brother stood to the side and said nothing. Though he was hardly a baby. He was a full head taller than me and, from the look of him, half again my weight.

Dinner was served almost immediately. A vast feast was set out on a table covered with a starched white cloth. Nor was it simply vast; a great deal of care had clearly been paid to every detail, down to the colour combinations of the food and the arrangement of the dishes. Her mother hurried back and forth between the kitchen and the dining room, while her father sat and encouraged me to keep eating. Izumi's colour had finally returned and she seemed to be feeling better, but she ate little.

She had told me that her father was a public health inspector. "That's why he's always on the road. He stays at hotels and inns and checks to see whether they're complying with the health codes. Then he gives them a rating, A or B or C."

"Sounds like fun," I said, not really meaning anything by it. But she shook her head and grimaced.

"Fun? Running a Q-Tip around a toilet seat or rooting around in garbage or collecting pubic hairs in locker rooms sounds like fun?"

For a man in his fifties, her father's face was heavily wrinkled, with a retreating hairline and dry, powdery skin. He had none of the worldly composure usually seen in people who travel for a living, but seemed rather withdrawn, reserved and almost awkward.

He popped a fava bean from its pod. "So, how are things in the middle schools these days?" he asked.

"Not bad, I suppose," I said, taking a sip of beer to cover my embarrassment at having nothing more interesting to say.

"And what exactly does a 'technical arts' teacher teach?" he said as his wife refilled my glass.

"Computer basics, for the most part. And woodshop – I show them how to make a chair. And some electrical circuitry; we make simple robots. That kind of thing."

"Sounds like a wonderful job..."

The conversation was faltering, but as if in an effort to cover the silences, Izumi's mother kept running off to the kitchen and returning with still more plates to squeeze onto the table. Her father looked as though he was wracking his brains for another question to ask, but ended up merely repeating that I should "keep eating".

I tried imagining the man sitting in front of me with a Q-Tip and some pubic hair in his hands – and oddly enough this made him seem more impressive.

Continues in the print edition. Order now.

Translated by Stephen Snyder. Published by arrangement with the Japan Foreign-Rights Centre, Tokyo.



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