HISSAC Highlands and Islands Short Story Association and Writing Competition

Can You Gut It For Me

CAN YOU GUT IT FOR ME? by Helen Kampfner

It’s dark in here but he’s back. A beam of light in the hall reaches under the door.

Richard steps into his apartment. It’s ten pm, been a long day. In his hand a box of instant ramen. He’ll have a shower first, open some wine, put on a piano concerto. The trills and crescendos remind him of his sister playing in the big front room with the velvet tasselled curtains, sheltering them from the street outside. Himself on the floor, surrounded by cars and soft carpet pile. Dad at work, Mom in the kitchen. Sieving and mixing and baking in Little Rock before he grew and went to UCLA.

Quiet now. Shhh. Don’t move, don’t scratch. Above all, don’t sneeze. She waits till he’s gone to his room and she hears the sound of the shower, hot water running over his neck, his head, his back.

Richard tastes the instant noodles, changes his mind, throws them away. Puts on an apron like a teppanyaki chef, chops an onion, garlic, herbs. He’s spoilt for choice for cooking implements—rows of pans, woks, casserole dishes stacked against the wall, black and red, in shiny bright enamel. The company he works for want their staff to be happy for the length of their contract there.

The kitchen door opens and a rich, deep smell fills the hall, seeps under the wardrobe.. Strange this American food. She’s heard his accent on the phone. Wonders why he’s all alone, no one to look after him—like a good Japanese wife—and no children. How old is he, this foreigner who listens to classical music and likes to cook when he comes home? Customs are different here, at least in small towns and villages. But in the city she has seen businesswomen of thirty, forty or so. Perhaps they have a better life—better than washing and skinning and gutting fish every evening when Jiro came home, his hands and clothes stinking of salt and oily mackerel flesh, and that haunted look in his eyes—the waves and the rocking of the boat—the whooosh of the sea, trying to claim him. She wanted to warn her niece about the roughness of fishermen’s hands from pulling nets and ropes, how they spear you like a marlin, making you bleed inside. Instead, she came to Sendai to buy a kimono for her wedding and now the girl is floating like a dead fish among the debris of the town. Hush, you stupid woman, she tells herself. Don’t disturb the American or there won’t be any food tonight.

It’s spaghetti after all, not so different from noodles. Richard enjoys having this time to himself, the freedom of living by himself. Going to the living room and choosing what he wants to watch from the hundreds of cable channels. Sundays he meets with friends, Japanese colleagues’ families. Or goes to the karaoke shops and pachinko parlours to hear the clink, clink, clink of little balls, sometimes the red light district to stare at girls. After a year in Sendai the sense of strangeness is still there so he likes being back in the apartment by himself, making his own rules. Mustn’t think about the walls moving, the clock falling down with his books. It happens back home, too. But not the water, the images of people in schools and sports halls asking, what is to be done about us? The apartment is solid though the oil refinery fire made the air thick for a while.

It must be midnight. He’s turned in and there are light snores coming from the bedroom. He won’t come out again unless he hears a noise or the phone rings. She creeps into the kitchen, breathing quicker, opens the rubbish bin and yes, there’s some ramen thrown in. She scrapes it out, runs it under some drops of water and puts it on a serviette, to eat. On a dish are some small green apples—a sweet, sharp scent of grass and buds and blossom—but she doesn’t dare take one in case he’s counted them. They smell like her parents’ farm the day Jiro proposed, the hook in her throat tasting of shrimp, the rope pulling her from the farm, flying toward him. Before the earth shook and the sea rose like a wall, swallowing them all.

					*  

He’s a fastidious man, according to his last girlfriend, but she didn’t want to move in with him. In the US, and she from an evangelical family, but he wasn’t ready to marry. Fancies Japanese girls but, mostly, they are wary of him—too tall, too brash—and what if he expects her to leave her country and move away with him? Because he’s fastidious he notices things. A crumb of cheese on the floor or an empty pizza box minus the crust he left for the birds. At night he listens for the pitter-patter of tiny feet. Heard them once but was too tired to rouse himself and get out of bed. He should set a mousetrap but would hate their little bodies to be mangled while he slept.

She’s learnt to sleep sitting in the guestroom wardrobe. It is warm, larger than most. Strains to catch phone conversations—knows a little English from her niece—fears the weekends in case there are more people. The worst was when he had a party and could have used the closet to hang coats but it was too hot to wear them.
Nights pass and in the morning, when her limbs ache and he’s gone to work, she leaves her hiding place. Has the flat to herself. Admires the strange high beds, the rooms with too much furniture. Back in Ofunato, before the water rose, her and Jiro’s house was smaller. Tatami mats on the floor but clean and bright with flowers and the harmony of open space. No children, though for years she wanted them. A little boy to learn to fish with his father, a girl to grow beautiful, accomplished. She’s glad now. It’s hard enough losing a husband, niece, parents. Imagines them floating out to sea. Tells herself they are free from suffering but knows they will return to the cycle that never ends. ‘Do not worry’, the lama said. ‘The world is not real.’ But she does, she does.

Richard gets home early, feeling good, has decided in spite of everything, to stay. He could go back to San Francisco but the pay is good and his company rewards loyalty. He’s bought mackerel to eat today. Didn’t know the Japanese words for can you gut it for me so has to do it himself. But now it’s lying on the board, its slim cylindrical body covered in scales, mouth wide, set in an oval—drowned in air—eyes opaque, black. He feels sorry for the fish, wishes he had got ramen instead. Slices its stomach with a knife and plunges his hand inside the soft oily flesh. A bolt of nausea rises from his gut and he wraps it in paper, bundles it in the trash.

She’s drawn to the smell, flips open the lid and sees it lying abandoned, uneaten. Knows how to remove its gills, slit its belly gently Remove its heart, its bile, eggs sometimes. She could show him how to boil it, serve it with rice. Even after a few hours it smells of death, like the bodies of the people of Ofunato, washed up by the tide. But its meat is sweet, chewy, softer than she thought. She swallows…hears then a sound. It’s nothing. Feels something strange in her stomach like mackerel swimming, the way they splashed when Jiro brought them home in a bucket.
The way he killed them. The knife slicing their heads off while they writhed. Blaming her all the time. Her fault, he said, they didn’t have a child. That he slept with a hooker in Sendai. She wanted him to drown and he almost did when his boat capsized and he was fished out of the water by a friend. How it changed him—warmed him up inside—so he took her to the city to drink tea and eat bean cake, and see the festival of lights. Said he saw her, as he sank. In a field of apple trees, her hair black against the blossom, hooking his arms, pulling him home. He didn’t want a child now, to become a fisherman. The fish were disappearing and the sea, angry, would rise against them. Believed him when she saw the fear in his eyes.

					*

The tap is dripping. Richard calls the rental firm to find a plumber. They have a key to his apartment they can give him.

She is in the bathroom washing underwear. Hears someone coming in and dashes to the wardrobe, dripping water on the floor. Too late to mop it up. Leaves something in the washbasin. Now a man is calling. ‘Ma’am? Do you have an old towel? A bucket?’ Mutters to himself. She hears the clanking of tools, the rush of water, clasps her hands over her ears. She’d been away from the village that day. Returned to find foreign journalists crawling over the site, her house reduced to planks. ‘Nothing lasts’, the lamas say. But love does. She misses Jiro’s silences—that only she could break through—as if he had read the water’s message and was waiting for it to strike.

“He didn’t have the right washer,’ the girl in the rental office explains. ‘Why doesn’t your maid let him in, then he doesn’t have to come all the way here to collect the key again.”
Richard stares. What? That night he cooks vegetables, eggplant, mince. His mom used to make moussaka, an American version. He puts on a Mozart cello recital, slow and mellow. Mashes the potato in a bowl, adds a knob of butter. Pours a glass of wine but there’s a slight tremble in his hands. Suppose she’s right and someone has been using the apartment while he’s at work? Someone with the key, like a colleague of the girl in the rental office. Or perhaps a student who needs a nice quiet place to work.

She has to be careful. Not wash clothes, not eat, not drink, above all not make a noise. Not venture out of the wardrobe for more than two, three minutes at a time and always creeping below the level of the windows. There are postwomen, gardeners, neighbourhood spies. In these rich suburbs everyone is suspicious of everyone else, unlike her old fishing village where they helped one another with saki, fish, rice. ‘Keep an eye on my child for me…on my elderly mother.’ But that day no one did, or if so, their efforts weren’t enough against the sea’s ire. Everyone except herself, who was in the next town, buying a kimono for the wedding of her niece. ‘We have the yen,’ Jiro said. ‘Go, now. Please.’ It would’ve been better to be swept away with the houses and the children, the boats and the trees, than become invisible—a thief—like this.

He goes to bed, closes the door. There are no sounds, no pitter-patter of tiny feet, as if the mice have removed their shoes out of respect for him. Sleeps. Wakes at four. Then he hears it—the soft tread of ghosts outside. He shivers, dares not look. But he must, learnt from his grandfather long ago that he can not turn away. Whatever’s there—human, mouse, or visitor from the spirit world—he must look it in the face to exorcise his fears. Creeps out of bed to the kitchen. Observes a woman, scrawny as a featherless bird, scavenging from the trash. Aghast, she drops the fish and throws herself on the floor, in supplication.
“Get up,” he yells—louder than intended—but he is trembling, cross that his sanctum has been invaded. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” He should call the police but she reminds him of his grandmother when she was sick, though probably isn’t as old. Wonders when she last had anything to eat so he opens the fridge and takes out the moussaka he was keeping, heats it. But the stowaway refuses, and bowing, shuffles backwards through the door.
“Wait,” he offers. “You could work here. Eat everyday.”

But the shame is too much—she, who had more aji than she could fit in her stomach, fresh from the sea—so she tiptoes out of the foreigner’s apartment to find another wardrobe to hide in and wait to join Jiro and her niece.

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Helen Kampfner was born in Singapore, brought up in London, and now teaches English in San Sebastian, Spain. Her work has appeared in The Pacific Review and Narrative Magazine and a new story is due to appear shortly in Dream Catcher. She is very pleased to have come second in the Brighton COW Summer Short Story Competition this year and is currently working on a psychological thriller set in the Basque Country, where she enjoys walking in the mountains, the fiestas and the fabulous food.
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