When Sano was eighteen, he had been handed by his father a packet containing pictures of his possible brides. Row by row he laid them out on his family’s glass-top table, meeting his father’s eye with each placement, searching there for the one his father felt he should pick. His father, he thought, liked the pretty women best, and so he grouped and discarded and narrowed the deck to the best one along those lines, the loveliest face, and he showed his father the girl, and his father said:
And gave nothing more.
Sano beat back, and buried the best-faced girl at the bottom of the pile. He spread his options out again, and watched the movements of his father’s eyes again, and the angles of his eyebrows, and after another infuriating hour he selected another face, less pretty, but more winning, a girl with a family more well-connected on the mainland, and he showed his father the girl and his father said:
Sano took all the photos in his hands. His stomach gnawed; his temples ached. His fingers slipped over the corners of the photo paper, placing each image onto the table one by one, hoping to notice something new, and maybe his father was waiting for him to end this; maybe his father was giving him the chance to make the decision on his own; yet why was his father here presiding, why was he choosing from his father’s choices in front of his father if not to please his father, and Sano, with all of the images displayed, reached his finger out and pointed to one without knowing which, without even looking.
“All right,” said his father, and his big finger landed by Sano’s on the opposite corner of the picture. “You’re sure?”
Sano drew his selection aside with his finger, and gathered all the rest in a stack he set face-down.
His father picked up the photo from the table. “I’ll let them know,” he said.
So it was that Sano, twenty-two, newly graduated from university, waiting quiet in the parlor, came to be introduced to a girl named Mariko, one year his junior, whose family had recently expanded their network of fish ponds on the island. They were married a year later, in the spring, and Sano moved into the old family home on the island. Mariko was a good companion to him; fond of the manse, and of Sano, and of the work, but not such that she seemed to derive any personal pride from what they did or from who he was. If there was one fault and endearment Sano could levy on her, it was that she was altogether unimpressible, the whole fifteen years they were married.
She died a month before Sano came down the mountain—not at the hands of the disaster, but by the work of some deadly other thing, something abiding in her for who knew how long, overtaking her with sweats and lethargy, finally insensibility; it took her on its own timeline, without regard to the news, at that same moment, of the coming disaster. Under the circumstances, no post would deliver a message to her family. No priest would travel out to read the sutras. The servants hurriedly dressed and washed the body, placed flowers and lit small candles on the bedside table, then ran home to the mainland, crowding aboard last-minute longboats, promising to relay the message.
These same longboats had capsized when the first wave hit. Sano hadn’t thought of it as an act of prudence, to stay in the house as he’d done. Sano was not thinking much of the disaster. When the downpour arrived, the house creaked, the wind whistled around it, the rain beat down on the roof, and Sano knelt by the bedside table tending spent candles and arranging at bedside little objects that Mariko had liked. Alone he stayed in the innermost part of the house, in the bedroom where his wife’s body lay, unburied, and there, in that room, the island outside was unimportant to him as it ever had been. He stayed until the storm was finished, and he finished the lesson he’d first begun to learn when his father handed him the pictures. His lesson was how to act like he’d made a decision when he had not been given a choice.
His lesson was how to forget wanting anything different.
The next morning when Rin woke blearily to silence from the bed, her first thought was that maybe she’d always been wrong about Sano, maybe he was really a quiet man, maybe the loudmouthedness had come only after he came down from the mountain, or only because she couldn’t speak to him. She half-dreamed momentarily, in the weak light of cloudy morning, Sano already awake, seated in a chair before their window, his hands clasped, his face kinder and less weary. She pictured him suited in his fine attire, his hair clean and neatly combed. Waiting for someone.
Rin couldn’t hear Sano breathing.
She shook off sleep, crawled across the floorboards on still-sleeping feet, feeling her way to Sano’s side, digging her fingers into the scratchy weave of Sano’s blanket until she found, buried there, his nose and mouth, and heard him panic awake, coming to life with startled breath. “It’s morning,” he said, eyes leaking weakly at the corners. He turned onto his back and lay still, face to the ceiling, staring, until his breathing slowed, and his eyes closed once again.
Rin rocked heel to toe, making her feet feel part of her, making them needle, making them hurt so she could use them again. She reached out and clutched onto Sano’s shoulder. She shook him back awake.
Sano startled again, frowned, glared. “Let me sleep,” he said.
Rin shoved him into the pallet mattress with her palm.
Sano shrank from her like a child unused to being struck. “Why are you mad at me?” he asked.
Rin scrambled up to stand in front of him, glaring as she waited to be answered—waited for the pallet to rustle, for Sano to sit up and say something more to her, to tell her about his fish and the fish business and his life on the mountain; waited for his description of the sounds that the mountain used to make, the distant crack of ice and snow; waited for the rain to rustle through the grain; waited for the hen to cack at the door; waited for all the sounds of life resuming that wouldn’t come, and didn’t come.
And Sano, drawn back into his blanket, said, “It’s not a lot to ask.”
Rin leaned forward, cocked her head as if to better hear.
“Is it?” Sano asked, his focus on the ceiling. His brittle eyelashes nipped the sallow skin under his eyes.
Rin felt uneasy, embarrassed. She squeezed his arm with all her fingers to remind him she was there, in case he had forgotten.
Sano continued, eyes trained ahead. “Many times our choices are impressed upon us, not offered, and since they’re compulsory, there’s no sense in wishing for anything else. Doing so would make the dissatisfaction worse. But, I don’t want to live in this dead man’s house. I don’t want to be on this island where no one else lives. I worry sometimes I don’t want to be anywhere, don’t want to be alive, but then I think that’s not true. I know because I wouldn’t trade places with Mariko. I wouldn’t give my lot for hers, for she died at length, and could not find peace at the end, for all I tried. I accept what I have if that’s what is offered me. I accept it. That’s all a man can do.”
Rin tucked the blanket about his shoulders. Sano fidgeted beneath it like he wanted to shake everything off, like he wanted to be touched by nothing. But in the end he lay docile, buried up to his chin, just his face poking out, drawing thinner and thinner with a pitiable and permanent frown.
“Though—” Sano said. “Nothing I’ve had is something I would want, if I were to sit down and plan out a life. I wouldn’t live on an island. I wouldn’t have my money come from ponds. I wouldn’t have my knowledge eaten up by feeding schedules, by water testing, by dull fish with their gaping mouths. I would be something better, more valuable. I think this, and then I think, what better would you have been? What opportunity do you imagine you reached for, but missed? Maybe you’d be a scholar, maybe you’d be an artisan, but then you never did these things. You thought about doing them. A farmer of fish—that’s a job that needs no striving. Settle as all men settle, then. Settle down. Settle somewhere far from home and think you’ve made a change.
“I wish,” he blurted before he ran out of breath, “I wish someone had come to look for me,” and his throat constricted, his voice broke. Rin looked away from him through she knew he was crying, and that crying compelled comfort. She pinched the papery edge of his shirt sleeve between her thumb and forefinger and listened to his whispered sobs. She counted the freckles on the backs of his hands.
“I’m sorry to say bothersome things,” Sano said. He turned his body wearily on the pallet, facing her.
Rin met his red eyes. She tried to look reassuring. It had been a long time since she’d seen herself and she could not know whether it worked.
“I wonder if you cannot speak to me,” Sano said, “or if you have chosen not to,” and his eyes were wishful, pleading. He reached out suddenly and put his thumb against her lower lip, gently, as if imbuing it with a magic he had never dared before to use. His eyes willful and bright.
Rin took his hand from her face, guided it back to rest by his side. Often when he had trouble sleeping, he would fall asleep this way, if she squeezed his hand in hers a while.
But he did not fall asleep. “I would like to hear you talk,” he said.
It was the last thing he said that morning. Over the next day and night his body emptied out and kept emptying, and somewhere in the suffering he must have said a handful of other things. He must have asked for a second blanket to quell the shivering. A pair of socks. An empty bucket and a clean one. A cooling cloth, for she remembered wetting it. The blankets now spurned to the side, now piled on the floor. Heavy cloth pinned up to the window to block the sun. Rin fetched him what he needed. She brought him water and maintained for him heat or cold, light or dark. He would like to hear her talk.
When the fog rose on the next morning on the house, when the sun hit the pallet holding Sano’s body, no matter how Rin tried, this was the last thing she remembered him saying ever.