– Jī

Flirting and fighting and fucking, the dragonflies hover over the water, diving into their reflections, debris; confusing them for co-procreationers, adversaries.

Jī hasn’t come to shore yet, or he’s hiding out.  Fair enough. He plays hard to get. And Saeko hasn’t arrived yet, and oji said he would be late.

Even for the bread he doesn’t come in. Not often. Sometimes, which is why we always bring it. We know that our strike-rate is about one in fifteen. That one time is better than nothing.

The cicadas are loud as always at this time of year. Walking along, if you didn’t know, you’d mistake them for the steady hum of a creek, or maybe not. Maybe you’d recognise the sawing of limbs and wings and other things . Maybe you could even identify the spinning  eee-eee-eee-eee atop it all.  I’m not sure what that is.  Dad would have known. It seems to keep the cicada din on track, to coagulate, coalesce, cohere. Conductor, or just a queen cicada looking to mate?

We’d collect them in summer when we were kids, keep them in small plastic insect houses especially designed for hot weather creepy crawlies, but I never learnt too much about them. Mum made sure those containers remained outside. I guess she liked her sleep.

Jī is a duck – brown and cream, and a light brown at that, caffe au lait. Much whiter than the other ducks who are all some form of grey, and bigger.  Not a goose, though, not a mallard, nor the lone swan which paddles the circumference of this pond waiting for winter, waiting for its mates to come back from Russia.

Jī. Jī used to live in our backyard. He was funny, cantankerous,  droll – If that’s at all possible for a duck. Sometimes he liked being chucked under the chin, under the beak?,  like a cat, other times he’d just as likely bite off your finger.

jii2    jii  

 Jī had a waddle on him that reminded us of Dad. No-one would ever tell Dad that, of course. I mean, I’m sure he’d heard that he stuck his feet outwards as if they were covered in webbing, and that his backside seemed to always be slightly stuck into the air as he toddled along, checking the rice-fields, looking for something in the supermarket, I’m sure he’d heard all that ever since he’d learnt how to walk. Old news and tired news. For him. Funny thing was that he liked to run, in his bow-legged way, he liked to jog, around this very path.

When Saeko and I were younger we sometimes joined him, but then I went onto basketball and she went onto volleyball; me onto getting married and having kids, and she followed suit. He could run though, he certainly clocked up the miles. He used to circle the path five times or so, and I think it stretches for a good three kilometres or more.

Even when we’d outgrown the park, Dad still used to jog. You think he’d be too tired, but running and reading the newspaper, or pretending to, were two things he did come hell or high water.  If it was humid and raining he’d put a white towel over his head like a veil, and it would kind of work to keep the rain off, and he’d use it to wipe down after he finished. If it was rainy season, Dad and his towel would  get soaked through, but he’d wear it anyway, out there doggedly splashing through the puddles, dirtying up his calves with mud. As if he didn’t see enough of it every day as was. When he finished, he’d wring out the rain that had soaked his towel,  and use the sodden cloth to wipe himself down. He  added more to the moisture caught between hair folicles, dripping down his back  than he took off.

Sometimes his brother, oji, our uncle, would join him.  They’d  jog five times around the pond, the straight man and splay-legged brother.  Even in athletic prowess there was no saving grace in his gait.

The only time his way of walking was ever mentioned directly to him was when Mum was angry. “What am I doing trying to talk to you anyway? You walk and talk like a duck! Quack, quack, quack, quack, that’s all I hear. You think you’re so wise, but all you say is quack, quack, quack. Why should I take advice from someone who eats weeds and snails for breakfast? Why did I have the misfortune to marry a duck?” Her off the wall rants  might have been okay, even the avian nuptials,  Dad was easy-going, but at any mention of his walk  he would fly into a rage and bow-leg it out the house down to the bar. Still, he was very rarely an angry duck. We knew his mood wouldn’t last long.

Like Dad, Jī was funny. Even though he was brown and cream and Dad’s hair was salt and pepper, and Dad was scrawny and tan from working outside on the family’s rice fields, and Jī was fluffy and soft and lived a good life, loved by us kids and Mum, Jī held himself the same way my father did.

jii2            jii2

Dad would read his newspaper in the evening when the news was already old, but you never tried telling him that. The surface of the table had to be clean, and he made sure it was, washing it down, wiping it down, then he’d shake out the paper and lay it on the table with great reverence. If there was a damp patch, he’d get up again. Wash and wipe the table until  satisfied. No-one could interrupt him at any stage of the ritual. It was newspaper reading time, and he’d send you off on a chore to make sure you were out of the room, or that you sat quietly if you were nearby. All except mum.  No-one could tell mum to be quiet and not expect to get hit on the head with one of her heavier pots.

It was the time he set aside to comb his hair, too. For whatever reason. He would pull a comb out of a small plastic case and run it through his hair,  the other hand following the comb, smoothing his short bristly cut. Turn a page, and start again.  Only for the first few pages, though. He didn’t have so much hair.

Jī too. He’d chase everyone out of his area. He didn’t like the other ducks. Now that we see him in the middle of the pond, he is exactly the same. Paddling along in his own air of importance, all the other ducks and other birds leave him alone, seeming to think this splendid isolation is his due. When his home was our home, after making sure there were no ducks or people in the general vicinity, he’d fossick through the soil; turn up a clod of grass and earth here, a weed there, throw away empty snail shells (I guess he was particular about his escargot, or they were the ones that just dropped from his beak, the molluscs perishing anyway). After his surroundings had measured up to his impeccable standards, he’d ruffle his feathers and preen. Just like Dad and his paper. Halfway through preening, beak half burrowed, Jī would nod off.

Dad used to like to pretend that he read all the news, that he knew what was happening in Tokyo, Kyoto, New York even, but his glasses would begin to slip, his head dip, his chin touch his chest, his comb fall from his hand – then he’d wake suddenly with a rustle of the paper, a cough, in the way that Jī would suddenly flap his wings, shake his duck’s tail, let out a quack to alert everyone that he was wide awake.

      jii

Asleep? Me? On the job? Get outta here! I mean it, get outta my territory! And sometimes if Jī felt you’d somehow shamed him by catching him in an non-statesmanlike state, though who knows what that is for a duck, he’d chase you right out of the garden to the back door.  Other times he’d just look at you, one eye open, measuring you up. Then he’d tuck his beak under his wing and sleep for good, because he was good and ready and the time for sleeping was now damn it.

“You’re falling asleep, old man.”

Crackle.

“Never. Just thinking.”

“Go to bed, father.”

“Not yet, not yet.” Crackle, crinkle, picking up the comb, a sip of sake, pouring some more. “Only yokels go to bed before nine.”

He worked hard – he got up early – he jogged around the park – he’d go to the bar, sometimes. He should have gone to bed early. Mum worked hard too, but she never jogged around the park, or went to the bar, though she’d have the occasional chu-hai on a hot summer’s night. She worked shoulder to shoulder with Dad, but some say a woman’s disposition is just that much stronger.

He died of a heart attack two years ago. Jī had left us long before. Long before Saeko and I met our husbands and had our children. We were going to call Jī, Chi, short for chichi – father – but we always threw the affectionate chan on the end, and if we called out chi-chan, chi-chan, Dad probably would have thought we were being disrespectful.  After all, we never called Dad chichi to his face, only when speaking about him to others, as is the custom. So, Jī-chan it was. Luckily in a way that our grandfather was no longer with us.

As I say,  Jī-chan, long before Dad died, long, long, long, long, long before Dad died, flew the coop, literally. Well, he was never in a coop but anyway. We kept his wings clipped, but I guess not clipped enough. There were no flurries or clumps of feathers left behind, no tell-tale red, no streaks of excrement or entrails, no slaying of the other birds, or devouring of the eggs, so we knew that he’d gone and that a fox had not got him. We figured he’d just decided to see the greater world. A duck unclipped can fly anywhere after all. Maybe he’d got tired of us making fun of his waddley ways, or actually didn’t like getting chucked under the chin – ducks can be contrary like that and Jī was for sure.

Last year Saeko took her kids to the park and she swore that out of a flock of birds that only came to the park in summer – though how you can tell most of the migrant ducks from the local ducks is beyond me, most of them, that is – out of them all she swore that she saw Jī.

Ane, ducks don’t live so long.

“I saw him. I don’t pay attention, you know, making sure the kids don’t fall into the water, get bitten by a snake, but Ryu-chan was standing on the edge of the pond just looking out.”

“Ryu-chan?” I imagined her six year old, the kind to deliberately accidentally on purpose tumble into the not shallow water of the pond,  just standing on its edge, my sister’s panicked and frazzled expression.

She nodded. “I was going to yell, move away, move away, Be careful! Don’t stand there. But I held my tongue and looked out to see what he was staring at. This brown and cream bird, and then Ryu turned and looked at me. Not a word.”

I nodded.

“Well, we had the bread cos’ you know the kids like to feed the ducks, but no other ducks would come up. This one though, and I want to tell you, we were standing at the place where Papa used to take us fishing, made a beeline for us, pecked up the few bits of bread we’d thrown in the water, left the others as if they weren’t good enough, and then it looked at me.”

“Looked at you.”

Saeko nodded, adamant.

“Then it ruffled its feathers…”

“Like rustling a newspaper…”

“And it foraged its down, its beak smoothing feathers here, fluffing them  there…”

“Like styling its hair with an old plastic comb…”

We laughed.

It was August, the time for ancestors to return, to revisit the living. Why not? Why not in the park he loved?

         jii2

Our mother thought we were bonkers of course, stark raving mad were her exact words,  and she wouldn’t join us. She has her own way of doing things, and since Dad died it usually involves going to the health club and gossiping with the other old ladies, taking a long hot bath and discovering all there is to know in the town. I don’t think she repeated our news, though. Oji’s son takes care of the ricefields now, and of course Mum is always close enough to contribute her two-cents worth, whether that be via phone, or physically, but now she does enjoy plenty of time away from that back-breaking work too.

Oji comes to the park though.  He still goes jogging, but he says it’s lonely running by himself.

Jī flew away when the weather got cold last year, but he is back this year for the summer. At first we came at a few different times of the day, but we couldn’t see him, but then oji said that he’d seen him just in the half hour before the sun set. So, we decided that was the best time of day, and we have two places where we wait for him. One is the fishing spot, and the other is in front of the ryokan-hotel where he would often stop, and share a smoke and a chat with the owner.

We always bring bread. The swan always comes in , but  Jī only sometimes. Just like Dad. Dad would never do something if he knew you expected him to do it, or wanted him to do it. Something that you thought he might enjoy. You could trick him into enjoying himself occasionally though, trick him into joining in. Sometimes he’d realise and wake up with a, ‘Huh! I know what you guys are up to’ look and he’d ruffle himself back into the serious stance that he seemed to think he needed to adopt with his family. Other times he didn’t realise he’d been tricked and his enjoyment would continue and with it, our own.

Bread crumbs, bits of bread, weren’t really good enough for Jī. Like I said before, apart from that one time when he came straight up to Ryu and Saeko, he would rarely come to the edges of the pond, but he’d nearly always make sure we saw him, for sustained periods of time mind you, looking out at us swatting away the mosquitoes, ignoring the curious glances of passers-by.  He probably wanted us to catch live frogs for him. Then he’d come in!  Until he’d decide that frogs weren’t good enough, either.  Oh well, it’s a duck’s life.

He sits out in the middle of the pond – a little empire to himself – and ruffles and smooths his feathers. Occasionally dives for some weeds, a snail. It isn’t enough, but it is better than nothing.

A foreigner walks past. I’m sure she’s thinking, what is this rare brown and cream duck? It looks pretty ordinary to me. If she could speak Japanese, I wonder what I would say?

“That’s Jī, our household pet. He flew away many years ago.” She would think I meant my household now, with my kids now. I wouldn’t set her right. It would only confuse her. Or maybe I’d tell her it was the rarest of birds from the imperial, celestial skies and it visited this pond and park once every thousand years. Occasionally it enjoyed eating stale bread, and it is rumoured that it could read anything you put in front of it, if you could only entice it to shore. A feather from its tail guaranteed a lifetime of health and happiness, and maybe a few riches as well. If you kissed it on the beak, a beautiful prince would be swimming in the pond where once there had been a duck. The only downside was that he was rumoured to be as bow-legged as he was handsome.

She actually scares Jī away. She’s got a heavy tread, but so do others, loud voices. When Dad jogged around the park he loved everyone he came across – the kids squealing, hunting for dragonflies, snails, frogs, the soccer players using the athletic course, the middle-aged ladies power-walking, zipped up in track suits, the dog walkers and shit-scoopers, the dogs themselves, the shit depositors, the dreamers under the trees.

It’s eight o’clock, dark but warm. The mosquitoes are biting. Jī has turned in for the night, or there is no moon and it’s too dim to see him. I’ll grab a ride home with Saeko. Oji will go his own way. Domo,  he says – thank you, goodbye, goodnight. Oyasumi, ki o tsukete, we say – good night, take care. We will meet again tomorrow, three of us, or two of us, or perhaps just Jī and me. We haven’t used up all the bread yet and it will be some time before it grows mouldy.

       jii

© 2009 lizardrinking

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8 Comments on “– Jī”

  1. Sue Says:

    Very poignant and beautiful writing, rose.

  2. someone somewhere Says:

    Oh, that was wonderful. Let me validate your ticket. Whatever I was expecting was more bite-size blog-length. So pleasantly surprised to just scroll on and on. down and down. There are almost always swans around here, but today the paddock across the road was full of them too. Some lovely lines, “wings and limbs and things.” Are you in this? Oyasumi, ki o tsukete.

  3. TOS Says:

    Beautiful prose, but I was thinking the mom was going to throw a pot at the dad, missing her husband , but inadvertently killing the duck. In sorrow, the family made a duck dinner (to honor their formerly feathered friend), they got a virulent form of avain flu, killing all of them, except for the narrator (who, incidentally, was writing the story from the abandoned prison cell which was now serving as her residence while under a mandatory quarantine).

    And as final words of the story were being put to paper, the narrator gazed out the window and saw a flock of ducks dive bombing a large pot that was floating in the compound’s pond.

    That said, your version is more subtle, I suppose. More realistic, too.

    If, however, you decided to play around with what I’m envisioning, I’d change the duck to an eagle. (Mainly because it is more easier for most people to imagine eagles dive bombing a floating pot in a pond. Ducks? I’m afraid they’re just a bit too lackadaisical.)

    (For the film version, I’d recommend robotic animatrons, supplanted with heavy doses of state of the art pyrotenics. I’m seeing the dad losing the waddle. The global youth-driven action film market today still wants more Arnold Schwarzenegger, and less Danny DeVito. Julia Roberts IS the mother.)

  4. TOS Says:

    CORRECTION:

    Houston, We Have a Hick-up

    I awoke this morning feeling anxious. I’m hoping that you hadn’t already taken my advice and sent off the screenplay, because there were a couple of GLARING flaws. (At first, I thought there were three mistakes, but I was mistaken; there were only two. Memo to me: “Stop, like, being so hard on yourself, dude.”

    Error one: Would anyone seriously believe that Julia Roberts (who should always be wearing a bikini and an apron when cooking) would attempt to settle a score with Schwarzenegger by throwing a heavy pot at his head? Of course not. She’d use a bazooka or a rocket-propelled-grenade-launcher (probably one made by the Soviets, thereby explaining why she missed, because those models were notorious for their faulty sightings.)

    Error two: Would anyone seriously believe that Julia Roberts wouldn’t have already known of the sighting flaw in her shoulder-fired RPGL? Short and curly answer: NO FUCKING WAY. Therefore, when she fires at Arnold, it is imperative that that greanade bounce of his chest (obviously he’ll need to start working on rebuilding his pectorals to their pre-1990 robustness) and goes careening out the window, where it lands on the grassy knoll near a group of happily playing blond Japanese children. The eagle-eyed eagle is soaring in the heavens above, sees that the adorable kids are about to be transformed into a fleshy and sinewy confetti, and instantaneously does the noble eagle thing and smothers the grenade with its own body and massive wingspan.

    Non-Error Three: I was temporarily flummoxed by the concept of the family getting offed after eating eagle soup, but then I just had to laugh at my own stupidity. “Dude,” I chided myself with a gentle, warm laugh, “these people are Japanese. They eat all kinds of weird shit that seems foreign to us. The eagle’s meat is a probably like a prized delicacy to them. Heck, they probably get into squabbles over who gets to suck on the eyeballs.”

    Finally, don’t worry about whether Arnold could pass the believabilty test as a Japanese rice farmer. You can rest easy. Today, the best dialect coaches and make-up artists all work in the film industry. These folks are magicians.

    You want proof? How about this: Yul Brynner was NOT from Thailand. ‘Nuff said.

    • lizardrinking Says:

      Quackadaisical, you mean, don’t you? 😉

      • lizardrinking Says:

        But Yul Brynner was sexy. Especially with that eye-liner. Thanks for the constructive criticism. I’ll pay close attention to it, study it muchly,and get back to you. . .


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